A Kavannah of Hanukkah

by Student Rabbi Roberta Glick

There are 2 themes: gratitude and tsheuvah that I want to talk about today with regards to Hanukkah. Hopefully something old and something new for everyone.

We sometimes think of Hanukkah as a “minor” holiday, maybe celebrated to balance against another big holiday in December. And we know Hanukkah is about a war that the Jews won against the Greeks, against assimilation. We rededicated the temple, and the oil for the menorah was only enough for 1 day but lasted 8 days. A miracle! That’s what the rabbis want to stress: the miracle of the light; not the fight.

Hanukkah is not discussed in the Torah. Rather, it’s in the Talmud, our oral law (tractate Shabbat) in a discussion about animal sacrifices. In ancient times, animal sacrifices were numerous and a great variety of types were offered each day but decreasing in number each day. This led to a discussion by the two famous Rabbis in the Talmud and their schools: How to light the Hanukkah candles.

Beit Shammai (who was stricter) said: Just like Sukkot sacrifices, we start with many and go down in number each night, from 8 to one. Good reasoning but Beit Hillel (who was a bit more humble and inclusive, but by no means pluralistic,) said NO. We do it differently. We start with one candle and we INCREASE the number of candles lit each night. And thus we do it as per Beit Hillel. Because Hanukkah is about increasing Light in the world, we increase holiness in the world, not decrease.  מעלין בקודש, ואין מורידין

Hanukkah comes at the darkest time of the year. There are holidays in other faiths in December that also point to bringing light into a dark world. For example, the Indian holiday Diwali, the Christian holidays of solstice and advent, the African holiday of Kawanza, the Muslim holiday of Mawlid un Nabi (birthday of Muhammed).  For Jews, “the light of the Lord is my soul.” The prophet Isaiah says that our job as Jews is to be a “light unto nations”, to bring the moral and ethical teachings of teachings of Torah to the entire world. Light is holiness.  Light is G-d. Light is Torah. Light is soul.

Another place where the Talmud talks about Hanukkah is in reference to the type of candles or oil we use on Hanukkah versus Shabbat, and how they are used on these days. Shabbat is about separation, distinction. We stop the work we do all week and rest.  Heschl describes it as a cathedral in time, not space. It’s a taste of the time of our future redemption, when all is perfect, and nothing needs to be fixed or created. Special preparations are required for Shabbat. Some people go to the mikveh for ritual purification. And only special candles designated just for Shabbat can be used. Once you light them, no other work can be done, and the light of the candles can be used for reading or studying; utilitarian value. Prepared and special for Shabbat.

In contrast, any oil or candles can be used for the Hanukkah menorah; clean dirty, broken, whole, special or not, and not much preparation is necessary.  It’s a “come as you are” party. And once you light them, the mitzvah of Hanukkah is to gaze upon their beauty, their holiness, their light, and not use them for anything else. The Hasidic masters describe the candles as a metaphor for us, for our lives.  Whether we are broken, common, rich, pure, impure; and whether you are prepared or not ready to be holy, you can come and participate and be included in the mitzvah. All types of people, all types of candles and oil. We enter from the place where you are, and each of us may enter from a different place in our lives. But we can all make the leap, or step. We can all participate in bringing holiness into the world, and light into the darkness.

The Hasidic masters were concerned that it is not enough to just do the mitzvah and just follow the law mindlessly. Rather, they were concerned with our internal experience, our religious consciousness, and even the mystical experience: being aware that you are in the Divine Presence when we participate in a mitzvah.  We may say this is Kavanah, the intention, also mean “arrow or direction” we are aiming, and many of us call this mindfulness.  And just as we bring the light into the darkness of the physical world, the Hasidic masters, and in particular Sfat Emet, taught that as we gaze at the candle, we should deeply “look” for a long time, 5 or even 30 minutes, and see how the flame changes, and is constantly moving. Again, like our lives. Perhaps some of you were like me and liked to look at fireplace fires or campfires for a long time like this. The Hasidic masters teach that as we gaze at the candles we need to look “deeply.” It is important to “see” what is not visible to the eye, as well. We need to look deep inside ourselves, and shed light on our own dark spaces, our shortcomings, our resentments, our neediness, our excessive wanting or grasping for materialism, our turning away from the beggar or homeless or sick or elderly, our lashon hora or yetzer hara.  We can shed light on these internal dark spaces, and do t’shuvah. Sfat Emet says that within each of us is an inner point, and inner spark, and we can infuse this point into the entire soul of a person by being joyous through Hallel (praise) and Hodaah (thanksgiving), meriting to be included in the community of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that choshek, darkness, is forgetting; turning away. Light is “seeing”, remembering, memory, the secret, the hidden good, and bringing it forth. Only with the “heart” can one see what is right. Think about how we “see”, how we “look”, for this determines how we “relate” to one another. So as we shed light on our own dark internal spaces, in our lives, in our hearts we can try to bring more light into ourselves, more loving kindness, more generosity, more shalom, more joy, more gratitude into our own hearts, into our own consciousness, and as we open our hearts we can bring these attributes, the attributes of G-d, into the world: “be a light unto nations”.

A final sharing about Hanukkah from my Zohar class.  The Zohar is a beautiful mystical book holding deep wisdom, secrets and meanings to the Torah and everything else.  I see it as a poetic look at life and Torah. For me, poetry is like an impressionistic painting; you get a few evocative words and images, and you fill in the rest, creating an experience. What I learned from my wonderful Zohar teacher, Rachmiel Drizin, is that Hanukkah is really a holiday of gratitude and t’shuvah. On each of the 8 days we are supposed to recite the complete Hallel, songs of praise and thankfulness. And each of the 8 days of Hanukkah are associated with a particular Sefirot, from Kabbalah. These are representations of the attributes of G-d superimposed on man. We are a microcosm of G-d in that we are made in G-d’s image. These Sefirot, middot, attributes include wisdom, loving kindness, truth, balance, beauty, etc. On each day of Hanukkah, we are supposed to instill a sense of gratitude through recitation of Hallel and focus on one of the attributes of G-d, and try to emulate it that day, to practice it in your life, and repair the brokenness. Hanukkah is considered the last chance to get in your “high holiday” T’shuvah, to renew the vows you made on Yom Kippur, about improving your life this year: physically, intellectually, spiritually, with yourself and others, with Chesed and generosity and compassion.  It’s like the “new year resolutions” some of us make.

Here is a really nice conversation piece from Orot. The theme is “The lights we need”. On this Hanukkah, which types of light do we need? Which light do YOU want to bring into your family or the world. Finish this sentence: “Tonight we will consider the light of…”Courage, stillness, comfort, joy, growth”. In closing, may you be blessed with the light of Chesed and compassion in your lives. May you be blessed with eight days of internal light and repair, fixing chaos in your life, and illuminating the dark days of winter and increase light in the world.

Meditation: From the priestly blessing: May G-d shine Divine Light upon you and be loving to you: A Prayer of luminous light and Love to you. Think of a time when you were luminous or you were loved.

Shalom.

Hanukkah and Our Highest Self

My Grandson recently said this about his twin Aunts:

“Whenever I see a tree it always feels deep inside me that I am earth.

And when I am with Beth and Ella it feels like they are earth with me.”

While this haunting call to Oneness comes from the heart of a six year-old, philosopher Ken Wilber also calls us to mindfully live in the light of our Highest Self.

“… you are a genuine co-creator of a reality that every human being henceforth will pass through. Make sure, therefore, that to the extent that you can, always act from the deepest, widest, highest source in you that you can find ; let every word out of you mouth come from the Highest Self you can discern; let every action spring from the deepest Source you can possibly summon. You are laying down Forms that will be stored in that great storage bin in the Kosmos, whence they will one day reach down and mold the future with their own special insistence. Make sure those Forms will be something you can be deeply proud of. You do realize that you are directly co-creating a future World, don’t you? Please, never, never, forget that….”

May you create a reality of light and love everywhere you go.

Chag sameach,

Alison Brown

 

Malchyot Reflection

by Student Rabbi Dr. Roberta Glick

Malchyot: Kingship.  What relationship does that word evoke in you?

Is it the “radical amazement” of Heschl trying to explain the awesome mystery of the transcendent Divine Presence?

Is it the fear and trembling of judgment, like Adam when he heard the kol of G-d who asked: “Ayekah? Where are You?”

Sometimes we need a Malchyuot, someone else to be in charge. As Sylvia Boorstein said (at our recent retreat):     “Cosmos, you drive, today!”

What is this relationship we have with the Divine, and how, in any relationship do two distinct souls join together in one union/ Echad without either compromising or diminishing itself: How does 1 + 1 =1 and still remain 2?

Reflecting this year on the stranger, perhaps we are also the stranger, and have become estranged from ourselves, from others, and from G-d.

I would like to share, briefly, a teaching (with my comments) from Sfat Emet on the very question of our relationship with G-d, which reflects our relationship with ourselves and with others. Sfat Emet suggests this relationship is one of reciprocal love.

As most of you know, Elul, this month of preparation leading up to the The Days of Awe, is also an acronym for                Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li  – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me (Song of Songs)

It also emphasizes another vital aspect – that a relationship is a reflection: You and your beloved mirror each other:      “Like the face reflected in water, one heart [is reflected] in another” (Proverbs 27:19).

However, Sfat Emet sees the words in a slightly different light. G-d is being the initiator.  Creation and redemption were all gifts given to us, not for any of our doing, not out of our merit, but out of love. The same with the revelation at Sinai, Torah and the commandments. And just like in any love relationship, sometimes the recipient is not ready to give back love, to return the gift, to commit, to reciprocate. Instead we built the golden calf and turned away. Elul then becomes a time of repentance, of Tsheuvah, of turning and returning, of turning toward, of cleaning up our messes, of returning to our true essence, of taking the first step to reach out to G-d. Then, with Tsheuvah, and the building of the mishkan, a place for G-d to dwell, we earned G-d’s love, and ready to return the love. Now we can have a reciprocal love relationship.

The mystics say Tsheuvah was created before the world: The cure was there before the disease existed. And today, the mishkan is no longer the external place out there, but rather, your hearts. Rabbi Menachem Mendel says: “Where do we find G-d? Wherever we let G-d in”. In the opening and the breaking of our hearts, we find the Divine.

Sfat Emet ends by saying that we can see Elul as lovers seeking each other, and Tshevah fills us not with fear, but with a yearning to become closer to G-d.

But as the final step of tsheuvah, after our awareness of our problems, and after making amends with others, and re-establishing relationships, why do we have to come before G-d and confess our sins.  Doesn’t G-d know everything?     Rabbi Balinsky offered this answer: It’s because our words create our consciousness.  Our words create our world.

The high holidays are about the consciousness in our relationships. Mindfulness, is heartfulness.  Jonathan Sachs writes says that tsheuvah, tzadakah and tefilah are about relationships: Tsheuvah: our relationship with ourself; tzedakah: our relationship with others; and tefillah: our relationship with G-d. And I recently realized that it’s one process:  we must clean up our own mess and purifiy our hearts (tsheuvah) so we can reach out and help others (tzedakah), leading to a relationship with G-d (tefillah). Our liturgy says: “Before G-d we will be pure”, or “we will be pure before G-d” On Yom Kippur, G-d purifies us. It is not up to the High Priests. G-d is our Mikveh. Our most intimate relationship.

Daily we say: “YHVH, Hoshiah, Ha Melek yayenyu, byom karenu”: G-d, save us, answer us on the day we call out to you”. Our call today is: Malchyot, G-d, “Purify us, so that we may have hearts of wisdom, from which forth flows generosity, and compassion and kindness, to ourselves and to all beings.

In the Space of Tekiyah: Reflections on the Start of 5779

By Student Rabbi Stacey Z Robinson

This is about the 19th iteration of my personal reflection.  The 19th of today, and the 19th written down.  There have been infinitely more than 19 iterations playing in my head, ever since I was so kindly asked me to write one for Rosh HaShanah.  Knowing what I want to write has not been the issue.  Getting it right, finding all the words and hearing the flow of it— that’s been a bit of a challenge.

You see, there are too many words, too many ideas and things to say, floating around in my head.  I know, somewhere, somewhen, that they connect.  I can feel that, feel them all jostling for position, taking up residence in some little known and cobwebbed corner of my head, leaving a faint pattern in the dust and clutter.

“Pick me!”

“Pick me!”

“Start here…”

Except, when I poke around, to find which of the eleventy-seven stories running around loose in my head is whispering “start here…” I get lost.  That internal torch gutters, sending bizarre fun-house shadows to distort my visions, and then they all go skittering about, playing hide-and-seek with the shadows and light.

And so, since I can’t find the beginning of this thread, can’t seem to be able to tease and coax the end out from the tangled ball of string it has become, I thought about starting at the end.  I could, but I don’t know what that is yet either.  So, I will pick one bright and shiny things to start with, and see where that leads.  It may be a beginning, though more likely, it will be a middle.  There are many more middles than beginnings.  I will pick one thing, and see what happens.  I’m pretty sure I’ll at least recognize the end, whenever we get to that.

So.  First — redemption.  It’s all about redemption.  My redemption, to be exact, and my quest for it.  And my fear that I will never find it.  Or receive it.  And it’s about God.  It’s all about God, too.  Always.  And my quest for God.  And my fear that I will never find God or forgiveness.  And that I will never be able to forgive God.  The pain of this fear is almost unbearable.

I spent a couple of decades denying God and redemption both.  That pain was unimaginable.  I am reminded of the midrash of King David and the origins of the Adonai S’fatai, which is the prayer we say at the beginning of the Amidah.  David, the rabbis tell us, had sent a man to his certain death for the sake of satisfying his own selfish need.  The man, Uriah, was a man of honor.  He would not be  dissuaded when David had a sudden change of heart.  He was killed in battle, along with most of his troops.  David got word of Uriah’s death just before eveing prayers.

What was he to do?  He knew that he would have to talk to God, to ask forgiveness.  But– and here’s the hard part– David’s fear: what if God said no?  What if God refused?  David ran into the fields, running from himself, from his fear, from God, until he could run no farther.  How could he ask God for forgiveness, when he couldn’t forgive himself?  He stopped, just as the setting sun hit the horizon, staining the sky with crimson and gold and purple, and he cried out, in his fear and longing “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufid yagid t’hilatecha…”

God, open my lips, that I may declare your praise…

And with that prayer– filled to its very edges with pain and humility and hope and despair, David was forgiven.

Well sure, the voices in my head whisper, God can forgive David.  Let’s face it: he’s, well, David.  His very name means “beloved…”  And you’re not.  You’re… you.  All bet’s are off.

It is my greatest longing, my unrequited quest– to be redeemed.  To be forgiven.  To dance in the palm of God’s hand.  To believe, if even for an instant, that though I may not be David, though I may not be Beloved, I may find a small piece of it, and that that may be enough.

So it is fitting, I suppose, that I was asked that I give a personal reflection at this morning’s service.  Today is such a busy one!  The Book of Life and Death is opened and the Gates of Justice swing wide.  It’s the birthday of the world.  Today, we stand with awe and trepidation as we undertake the breathtaking majesty of diving inwards, a deep and long and solitary dive, into murky waters that make us gasp and shiver with cold.  But eventually, the water warms and the silt and grit settle and we learn to see, to shine a light on the inside, all the beauty, all the pain, all the hope and need.

It is all about redemption.

Today is redemption and majesty and reflection and God.  It is joy and celebration and hope and…

Whatever today is, whatever the ritual and tradition that surrounds this day may be, what today is, what today will ever and always be, is my brother’s yahrzeit.  While my head hears whispers of “pick me” and “start here,” my heart hears a steady murmur of “this is the second anniversary.”  And last year, for all the pomp and circumstance of Rosh HaShanah, for all my desperate yearning for redemption and God, drowning out the music and prayer and the triumphant sounding of the shofar that opened the Book and flung wide the Gate– all I could hear was the steady cadence of “This is the first anniversary of his death.”

This is one of those days that I am less forgiving of God.  This is the second thing.

I know– absolutely know– that God is not at fault in this.  God didn’t set the butterfly’s wings to flapping that ended in the hurricane of my brother’s death.  There was no Divine Plan here.  Randy smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, existed on caffeine and nicotine.  He was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer when he was 45, and died when he was 47.  Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, though I don’t think of him every day like I did.  Stretches of time go by– a handful of days, a week, some small length of time, and I will suddenly stop, feeling the ache of his loss like a stitch in my side, sharp and hot, receding into a dull throb until it is more memory than real.  My breath doesn’t quite catch in my throat when I think of him.  Mostly.  I say kaddish every Shabbat, and I do not weep.  Mostly.

He died because he smoked.  He died because he got cancer.  But he died today, two years ago.  On Rosh HaShanah, the day of pomp and circumstance and joy and celebration.  I was with him in the hospital when he died, literally as the shofar sounded down the hall from his room,  And so the Book was laid open and the Gates swung wide and my brother died, all in the space of tekiyah.  And so today has suddenly become hard.  And I am suddenly less forgiving of God.

And for all of that, when I stood in prayer and my knees began to buckle from the weight of my sorrow, when I was filled with an ocean of pain and loss, when I wanted to curse God– when I did curse God– there were hands that reached out to hold me steady, and strong arms to carry me through to firm ground.  When I demanded of God, to God– where the hell are You?  I was answered: here.  No farther than the nearest heartbeat, in the still small voices of all those around me, who showed me, again and again, that I was not alone.  Even in my pain, even in my doubt and despair, I was not alone.

And so, the third thing: Redemption.

I started there, I know.  Perhaps my ball of string, with its jumble of tangled threads and hopeless mess, was less eleventy-seven different things and more a giant mobius strip of one.  Perhaps it is all reflections and variations on a single strand.  Perhaps, at least for me, it is all about redemption.  And God.  Ever and always.

I have spent a lifetime yearning for redemption.  I have spent an eternity of lifetimes searching for God.    I have declared my disbelief in God even as I feared that God didn’t believe in me.  I have shouted my rage and demanded answers and whispered my praise.  And the thing I come back to, again and again, like a gift of impossible and breathless wonder–

It is not what I pray that matters.  It is that I pray.

For all my yearning, for all my longing, what I don’t ever realize is that I am redeemed.  I have not been abandoned by God.  Neither have I been forgotten.    David had it right in his psalms: we cry out to God and we are healed.  He didn’t tell us “God only hears the pretty words.  Speak only of love and praise, only then will you be heard.”  No, it’s pretty clear: we find healing and redemption because we cry out in our anger and our fear.

I do not believe in a Santa Claus god, who bestows presents on the deserving: God does not provide parking spaces or jobs, nor do we win wars or sporting events as the result of our faith and prayers.  Good people will die, evil people will prosper, the sun will continue to blaze in the noonday sky. world without end, amen amen.

In my faith, in my prayer, what I find, again and again– what I am given, again and again, is grace.  What I get is strength and courage to face what life has placed in front of me in that moment…even if that thing is the death of my beloved brother.  My faith is not a guarantee that I will never know fear, or that only good and happy things will happen.  My faith, my prayer allows me to put one foot in front of the other and know that I will be carried through.  And in that exact moment,  the moment I take that step, I am enough and I am redeemed.  And in that moment, I dance in the palm of God’s hand.

 

For my brother, Randy (z’l)

May we all dance in the palm of God’s hand

 

 

Water and Fire – Unetaneh Tokef

By Student Rabbi Stacey Z Robinson

Ribbono shel olam,
Master of eternity,

Who numbers the stars
and the dust,
Who counts our souls –
our deeds –
our days.

You, who remembers
what time has forgotten,

Who writes and seals –
though we tell our own stories,
and live our own lives –
Blessed is the One
Who opens the gates
that we, ourselves, have closed.

God of stillness and secrets,
whose name is hidden
within our own,

Let me draw near
so that I may know
water and fire,
sword and beast,
famine and thirst,
riot and plague.

Sound the shofar!
I will hear your call
while angels tremble,
That I may know
rest and wandering,
harmony and dissonance,
peace and suffering.

Write upon my heart
poverty and richness,
degradation and exaltation.

God of power and compassion,
of mercy and hope,

Breathe into me repentance.
Sing into me righteousness.
Fill me with prayer.

Let me return, God.
Fling wide the gates.

On Rosh Hashana it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Intend — by Student Rabbi Stacey Z Robinson

I had intended…

Wait. Let me start again, this time in the present. I intend…

Ugh. I have no idea what I intend, what I had intended, what I will have intended.

What I know is that I love the English pluperfect– past, present and future, all rolled into one. Even more than the pluperfect tense,  I love that in Hebrew, we consider not necessarily past, present or future, but completed versus not completed. Action over time, complete versus intended.

The holiness of completion and the grammar of intention.

They are intricately– intimately– connected, by time, by action, by desire. It is not enough to want. It is not enough, even, to do. The rabbis tell us that in order to satisfy the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, I must have intended to do so. I must consciously be in a place where I will hear it. If I merely happen to walk by a synagogue and hear the sharp burst of tekiyah, I will not have satisfied this commandment.

I strive for completion, for the mindfulness of my intention. I intend to fully engage, in my Judaism, in my continued and continuing conversation with God, in finding a path to wholeness that shelters me and the world entire.

My actions mostly support this. Sigh. My intention, though, can be– incomplete. I am subject to the laws of unintended consequences. My grammar can be faulty in this. I am less than holy, though I am human; no more, no less. I have hurt others, through my thoughtlessness. I have been unkind in my haste. I am unforgiving in my passion and self-righteousness. I am cruel in my fear. I am cynical in my doubt. I do not intend to be these things. My intentions are (mostly) good. Please God, don’t let me be misunderstood– least of all, by me.

One of my favorite of the midrash is one of creation. There are ten things, the rabbis tell us (except when there are seven) (because the rabbis can spin many plates at the same time)– there are ten things that were created before God ever created the world. Depending upon the rabbi and the midrash, these included the rainbow, and the burning bush and the ram’s horn. There were others, like manna and Miriam’s well that sustained in the desert. The greatest of these, though, to my mind, is t’shuvah.

How awesome is God! How great is the Creator of All, to know that there would be a disconnect between intent and result? How breathtakingly, achingly divine, to understand that before creating the heavens and earth, we needed to have a path back, a way to return? We will sin, but we will not be abandoned. The gates of t’shuvah will always be open for us, whenever we approach them, whenever we walk through.

Be holy, we are told, because God is holy, and we are b’tzelem elohim: in the image of God. But we are human, and so, for all our mindfulness, for all our drive towards completion and wholeness, we will fall short. We will hurt the people we love, we will be indifferent to the needs of others, we will turn away the stranger in our midst. even when we intend otherwise.

Just as God intends for us to find the way back, to return, to stand, once again at the Gates that are thrown wide (or openned only a small crack)– we will find forgiveness, we will find God, we will find each other, ever and always, there at the Gates. And in the very instant that we step through, in that breath, that heartbeat, that intention– there is neither past, nor present nor future. There is only wholeness.

The holiness of completion, the grammar of intention.

 

Even Adam Kvetched About the Long Winter Nights!

We all know the story of Hanukkah. But, there is another narrative that many of us don’t know. Last week, Hebrew Seminary faculty member Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub taught us a lesser known story that prominently features Adam.

The better known Hanukkah story is derived from the Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 21b. The text tells us that the Greeks entered our Temple and defiled all of the oil in the Sanctuary. When the Hasmonean monarchy rose up, defeated the Greeks and entered the Temple they found one remaining vial of oil sealed with the imprimatur of the high priest. This vial, as expected, contained oil for only one day. The Hasmoneans lit the oil and it burned for eight days and nights. The following year an eight day holiday was established for hallel, praise and thanksgiving. This text has given rise to the widely known interpretation that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the oil, defeating oppression and celebrating religious freedom.

Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a tells an alternative Hanukkah story that portrays Hanukkah as Adam’s encounter with the winter solstice (translation from Sefaria.org.)

“ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]

With regard to the dates of these festivals, the Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.

We read on:

כיון שראה תקות טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship.

Our text makes reference to the festivities of later generations because Adam’s two observances resemble the pagan Roman holidays Calenda and Saturnalia. It could be said that the Rabbis use this opportunity to trace these “revisionist” festivals back to Adam who established them for the sake of Heaven, that is giving thanks to God, whereas the Romans established them for the sake of the stars, i.e. idolatry.

While Avodah Zarah 8a doesn’t overtly mention Hanukkah, this text ties Hanukkah to the winter solstice and Adam. Hanukkah then did not begin with the Hasmoneans, it started with Adam. We offer this lesser known Hanukkah story in recognition of the salient symbol here – the gift of increasing light. In many ways this text establishes a universal holiday. We wish you all Ramadanadawalichristmakwaanzukkah!™

 

Rosh Hashana – Taking Root With You!

Sefer Assiyah
The Book of Making

September 2017

Recently, on an extraordinarily mild and sunny day in Chicagoland, I went to a nature center with my son and grandson. We peered and searched through aquariums, terrariums and pools of water — home to local critters. We spent a lot of time with the turtles – who knew they were such adept communicators when stressed out with their roommates?!?!

We also walked the boardwalks and trails strewn with half-eaten acorns. I did not see my grandson’s pockets full of them! Yes, I can pretend minor infractions like ‘don’t pick the wildflowers,’ don’t really count, but we were nearing fall. It was Elul and Rosh Hashanah’s accounting was approaching.

Rosh Hashanah is like an acorn upon the ground. It awaits the coming year in the cycle of life. Its growth depends on rain and microbial rich soil, just as we water our hopes and nurture our souls in anticipation of our dreams establishing roots in the coming year.

The Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the earth stand before God, as it says in the Thirty-third Psalm, ‘[God] fashions their hearts as one, and discerns all their actions together.’” Rosh Hashanah brings the choice of all choices – did I actively choose to learn and grow towards becoming a better person and what will I do with the opportunity to walk the earth in the coming year?

As much as I would like to bask in the sun and hibernate in a womb of soil as the seasons turn, more is expected of me. The gift of consciousness gave me the blessing and the curse of seeking more to life as well as the awareness that there are sacred parameters and goals – i.e. God, as best as we can intuit Her. As Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world.” I’ve often wondered how I can live with the grace and confidence of an oak tree, an orchid or a heron. I think this Jewish imperative is the way.

“Ethically speaking, these Days of Awe picture us standing in the full light of God’s scrutiny and wondering if we have remained true to the purpose for which we were created,” writes Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. “Have we taken proper responsibility for the world, or has our selfishness overcome our altruism?” Looking the other way as one stuffs their pockets full of acorns is a metaphor. Yes, there’s a line between unfaltering, holier than thou rightness and holding life lightly aware of its sacredness. One approach separates us and one embraces us all. On Rosh Hashanah God fashions our hearts as one. This is the world’s birthday. We are Adam Kadmon. We are all one soul and responsible for each other. We are a collective species; a collective holographic universe of Five Worlds.

And what stands between us? Rebbe Shapira writes, “’And I stand between God and you’ (Deuteronomy 5:5.) The Baal Shem Tov explained this to mean that the ‘I’ – the ego, the sense of selfness that we feel and that drives us to seek only our own selfish needs – is what stands between God and one’s true self – the soul. But how do we get past the barrier imposed by the ego-self? Only by mutually nurturing relations with other human beings – you cannot do it by yourself. This is also alluded to in the verse ‘And I stand’ – when I stand by myself, then there is the barrier ‘between God and man.’”

I am a cup in the Friend’s hand.
Look in my eyes. The one who holds me
is none of this, but this that is so filled
with images belongs to that one who is without form….

— Rumi

Just as we can’t picture God, we can’t always picture our best selves, but I believe that I am good, just as you are.

It takes people like you and me,
working to make ourselves kinder and more loving,
to produce positive change in the world.

— Londro Rinzler

 

http://www.wikihow.com/Grow-an-Oak-Tree-from-an-Acorn

L’Shana Tovah!

Alison

Be a Light, Come What May

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed that silence connects the Torah portion B’midbar and the celebration of Shavuot. It is the silence of the desert that counts in Judaism.  “Listening is the supreme religious art.” Having said that, Sacks reminds us that in Exodus 24:7, “’All that God says, we will do and we will hear [ve-nishma].’ It is the nishma – listening, hearing, heeding, responding – that is the key religious act.”

Reaching out to Hebrew Seminary supporters, our committee wrote, “At a time in our world when many of us see dark clouds on the horizon, others see recurring rays of hope. For 25 years amidst the flow of changing tides, our seminary has been training rabbinical students to be a Light, come what may.” I am a “recurring rays of hope” kind of person and I believe that we all bring light and a piece of the truth to our listening and responding. On Shavuot, as we reconnect with our religious and spiritual responsibilities it is in the listening that we learn a more open, broader truth. With this truth we strive to “do” immersed in the light of Anochi, the light of the Infinite who continually brings us out of narrow places.

I like Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s, z”l, recognition that the whole world is a teacher:

“Then I come to the B’rakhot [in Birkhot Ha’Shahar, the blessings of the morning] that are the ‘blessings’ of awareness and mind, and I end up giving thanks that sleep has passed from my eyes. I then prepare my mind for learning this day. So I say everything today is going to be a learning experience: Barukh attah Ha’Shem … asher kid’shanu be’mitzvotav ve’tzivanu la’asok be’divrei Torah,  or  al divrei Torah.  ‘Blessed are You … who connects us with holiness by commanding us to engross ourselves in the words of teaching.’ So the whole world is a teacher, and I open myself to it.”

In today’s world our inclination might be to keep quiet and let things play out. Still, if we have done our open listening, prayer and meditation we need to bring our truth to the table. The listening and responding can be religious acts. As my favorite American philosopher Ken Wilber writes, “You were allowed to see the truth under the agreement that you would communicate it to others (that is the ultimate meaning of the bodhisattva vow).  And therefore, if you have seen, you simply must speak out.  Speak out with compassion, or speak out with angry wisdom, or speak out with skillful means, but speak out you must.” We are all equally responsible for our interwoven future.

Shavuot then is the time to not only stand once again at Sinai to receive from God that which we spiritually know to be true, but to receive truths as they are received by others and to dialogue about those truths. “Our physical pluralism”, says Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, is matched by an intellectual pluralism for which, the Rabbis say, God is to be blessed: ‘When one sees a crowd of people, he is to say, ‘Blessed is the Master of mysteries,’ for just as their faces are not alike, so are their thoughts not alike.’” Baruch Rab-bee l’sodim.

Tu B’Shvat – Sing Praise, Happy Birthday, Then Back to Work!

“From the mystical perspective, reality is always both broken and perfect all at once,” Rabbinic Pastor Estelle Frankel says in an allusion to Isaac Luria’s Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.

This week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, which in contemporary times signifies the birthday of the trees.  Even here in Chicago in February there is potential for spring, for becoming, as tree sap begins to rise with the fluctuating temperatures.  The trees express their perfection even as the earth heats up to record highs for the third year in a row and regulations protecting God’s creations are rolled back by the government.  Ask the Artic, African and even Miami’s communities what this means on the ground.

In the air, circling the trees and the plants are the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.  These pollinators create seeds and fruit.  Tu B’Shvat asks us to pause and be thankful for this Bee not only as a keystone species that contributes to healthy ecosystems, but as part of nature’s perfection.  On January 10th of this year, 2017, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was listed as an endangered species.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service casts this dire news in terms that must speak louder than the fragile web-of-life that we are co-dependent on: “The economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.”

On Saturday, February 11th take pause. “Ask what you can do for your country,” was coined by John F. Kennedy and yet the foundation of our union is just the opposite. Our government is supposed to serve us.  When it doesn’t, when it doesn’t serve to honor and protect the perfection of God’s creations but rather chooses to break it, whether through ignorance or greed, it is time to be a Jew.  Jewish theology and thus ideology asserts that our mission is to improve life and we act in partnership with God to do that.  We have responsibilities as Jews.  As Americans, with our individualist vision of people with rights, not so much some would say.

But I am heartened by our country’s taking to the street and working together to right the wrongs that are especially salient today.  Tu B’shvat further reminds us to not forget the environment.  Our responsibilities weigh on a multitude of fronts.  ‘Wake up and smell the roses’ means wake up to reality: reality is both broken and perfect and we are responsible for it.

“We are an amalgam, an entity consisting of the outside world and the body/mind.  Like trees whose roots branch down and outward and those whose topmost, thinnest branches reach up and outward, we too are it all.  Air, water, electrical current, the planet itself, and our body/minds, all built as an interrelated living organism.  We didn’t arise from the universe.  We don’t even merely express the cosmos.  We are it.” Robert Lanza , M.D.

Here’s one thing you can do to offset climate change: https://www.arborday.org/takeaction/carbon/offsetting-with-trees.cfm

And here’s one thing you can do for the bees:
http://pollinator.org/guides

You can do these things at your own home and/or volunteer to do them at a senior center, a park or for a neighbor!

For more information on Tu B’shvat:
http://www.aish.com/h/15sh/mm/Tu-Bishvat-Past-and-Present.html

Other blog sources:
Dorff, Rabbi Elliot N., To Do The Right and The Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, (2002: Philadelphia,JPS).

Lanza, Robert M.D., Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death, (2016: Dallas, BenBella Books Inc.), 184.