Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mikeitz/Shabbat Chanukah: In Search of a Reason (repost)

Every year, when the holiday of Chanukah comes around again, I inevitably hear from people that they feel a need to 'defend' themselves to Christians. 'No, this isn't the Jewish Christmas!' By which we mean 
that it isn't as 'important' to us as Christmas is to them. Though what's really fascinating about this to me - having spent a fair amount of time with my Christian colleagues in the clergy - is that Christmas isn't really as religiously significant to Christians either! Their primary holiday is actually Easter, and many Christians feel that Christmas has become incredibly commercialized and materialistic, which leads to such campaigns as 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' and '[Don't forget] the Reason for the Season.' When you really get down to it, I don't think the two struggles, for Jews or Christians, are really all that different.

An extension of the complaint I hear about explaining Chanukah to non-Jewish neighbors is how 'Americanized' the holiday has become. I know, I know, it used to be SUCH a simple and innocent holiday (in our flawless childhood...), and Hallmark, Toys R' Us, and Zales came along and ruined it for us. But the commercialization has also kept our holiday alive, hasn't it? 
It's kept
 it vibrant in the minds of children, families, and our neighbors, and it's certainly in no risk of disappearing anytime soon. My point is, it's a mixed bag, and all things evolve and change. Some people think it's terrific and others think it's horrible. What's truly ironic, in my opinion, is that this tension is actually at the heart of the message of Chanukah itself; the interplay between religion and society, between sacred and profane. The heroic Maccabees actually incorporated many Greek practices into their reign, while still remaining distinctly Jewish. The medieval sage, Rav Ovadiah Sforno writes about the elevated middle light on our Chanukiah, the Shamash, and how all the other candles should shine towards it. He explains why this is important: "extremists on both ends of the spectrum need to focus on the middle road, which is symbolized by the central light of the menorah." Sforno is reminding us that there needs to be a balance of the religious and the secular.

This sentiment creates a perfect segue into our Torah portion. You see, Chanukah always falls on one of the 
parshiot that deal with the life of our ancestor, Joseph. Rabbi Danny Nevins exclaims, "who could be a better exemplar of the challenges of living in two worlds than the grand vizier of Egypt?" Joseph starts out as a lowly prisoner, but then
quickly rises to become the second-in-command of the empire, and along the way changes his clothes, his language, even his name. Yet underneath it all, he never stops identifying as Joseph. Every Shabbat around the dinner table, we bless our sons to be like Joseph's two children, Ephraim and Menashe, because they maintained their Jewish identity, even while being raised in the palaces of Egypt. In many ways, we are both blessing them, our children, and also ourselves. They remain Jewish because we impart our traditions and our values to them, regardless of the society in which we raise them.

Sure, Chanukah might have a giant billboard along I-95 and countless obnoxious (I mean, wonderful) 
YouTube videos. But we're not the only ones dealing with the tension of wanting to preserve holiness while being overwhelmed by
over-exposure. Nor are we the first ones to deal with this challenge within our own religion! In a sense, we need to embrace the silly with the sanctified, the cheesy with the cherished. It's an inherent part of this holiday, and it's been a part of our heritage since Joseph first tried to figure out how much Egyptian music to let his kids listen to. We're all struggling to find that middle path, to keep shining towards the middle light. It ain't easy, but you know what? I think THAT is precisely the Reason for the Season.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy Shoshanah on Flickr
2.CC image courtesy of skpy on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of upyernoz on Flickr
4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone and a shmaltzy looking Chanukiah in my office window. :-)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Va-Yeishev: An Equal Measure of Providence and Prudence

Sometimes, when you're struggling with a problem, you've got to "Give it up to God." Then again, sometimes you don't. Hearing me use that
phrase may surprise some of you, because it isn't generally a Jewish phrase. More often, you hear Christians speak of "Giving [x] to God," meaning that we leave a decision, a problem, or fate in general in the Hands of God to decide. It is not ours to control. And the reason you don't hear this too often in Judaism is because our tradition really wrestles with this concept. Last week, the Torah spoke about Jacob being renamed Yisrael, which is very appropriate, because it means "one who wrestles with God." Indeed, we are all Yisrael! Right? So let's wrestle.

In the Torah this week, we see strong evidence of that same tension, and we actually see it in the Jewish calendar as well. Our parashah introduces us to Joseph, and on Saturday night we begin to celebrate the holiday of Chanukah. In BOTH stories, we see people struggling with human agency versus Divine Providence.
Let's first examine each separately. The way Joseph's life plays out, it seems to be orchestrated from On High. Dreams come to him at night, in which he rules over his family, and his brothers hate him for those visions. God gives him charisma, a strong work ethic, and the ability to interpret the dreams of others, which first helps him gain status, then gets him thrown in jail, and then again elevates him to prominence in Pharaoh's court. Later, a famine brings the brothers groveling before Joseph, allowing him to exact revenge, though ultimately also reuniting him with his family. Indeed, everything is truly in the Hands of God.

And yet, Joseph is the one who CHOOSES to share his dreams with his brothers. He decides to offer dream interpretations, and when Potiphar's wife makes advances, he remains resolute in resisting her. God is certainly present throughout Joseph's life, but Joseph himself is not a passive bystander. The question is,
where does one end and the other begin? It is not easy to determine, and I think that is intentional. The same can be said for the Chanukah story. We celebrate two miracles on this holiday, and each was firmly orchestrated by God. The Maccabees defeated the mighty Assyrian-Greeks, and the precious Temple oil inexplicably kept the Menorah lit for eight nights. On the battlefield, however, I'm quite sure the Maccabees felt they had SOMETHING to do with their victory! And whoever was measuring out TINY spoonfuls of oil surely felt his/her own vigilance and prudence paid off...

This, I think, is the whole point. When we simplify the answer to "give it up to God," we are missing the importance of our own efforts, care, and dedication. We matter! We cannot be passive, complacent, indifferent spectators; we need to get in the game. On the other hand,
when we marvel at our own talents and declare ourselves to have single-handedly saved the day, we are ignoring God's role in our lives, which is often quite significant and vital. There is great humility in acknowledging Divine Providence, and I believe it gives us more clarity and mindfulness. In essence, we need both. Joseph and Judah Maccabee were each indeed the masters of their own destiny, and they solidified their rightful place in our Jewish history books... and they also heavily relied on God to help them along the way. And in the end, the true miracle is that we are able to partner with God. That reciprocal, interdependent, mutually beneficial partnership is more precious than any other gift this holiday season.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Chanukah!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of Alexander Louis Leloir's "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" courtesy of Raul654 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis' "Joseph's Dream" courtesy of Kobac on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Netojinn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Andrzej O on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 16, 2016

Va-Yishlach: I Alone!

There is a tension that exists in all of us. Two competing desires, that perhaps are in us from birth. As many of you know, I have a four-year
old daughter, and now also a five-month old son, and I see how it manifests in each of them, so very, very clearly. It is the tension between self-reliance and interdependence; "I can do it myself!" and "I need help!" Often, it may seem like a childhood struggle, and one that we solve or resolve as adults. Though in truth, I actually think it is a tension and a battle that persists within us throughout life. This week, we see our ancestor, Jacob, demonstrate his own version of this fight, both emotionally and physically; and I invite all of us to seize this opportunity to introspect and recognize the conflict inside ourselves as well.

Jacob has had to make it on his own for a long time. After he stole his father's blessing and his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him, he had to flee and survive by his own wits, surrounded by hostile relatives and trickery. I suppose you COULD say that
he pulled himself up by his boot (or sandal) straps. And yet, did he do it ALL on his own? Does anyone ever really? God was surely with him throughout his journey, and he DID find allies and supporters along the way. But that's why I call it "tension"! We all want to make it on our own, and sometimes society even puts a zap on our heads to make us think it's "better" if we made it alone. Needing help, sharing the burden, getting someone else to chip in; these might seem like "cop-outs," like settling. So we work incredibly hard (AND tell ourselves stories) so that we can truly say we made it on our own.

When our Torah portion opens, Jacob is preparing to face Esau once again. He's frightened. He prays to God in this moment, and you can almost hear the struggle between self-reliance and interdependence in
his plea to God: "...with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother" (Gen. 32:11-12). We do this, right? Memory changes images, and reinforces personal narratives; Jacob remembers crossing the Jordan entirely alone, with NO help, and now just look at all he's achieved... ALONE! But God was there, and Jacob DID receive assistance along the way. But many of us remember our own efforts, our single-handed accomplishments... and we forget some of the other "minor" players who may-or-may-not have been there as well.

And again, that's human. It's ok. The tension is, indeed, in all of us. It does, however, become a problem when we judge others, and the whole world, for not being able to do what we - in our minds - were able to do. "I made it on my own, so you should too!"
It's problematic, because none of us ACTUALLY achieved success or gained wisdom entirely alone. We all need help, and we all rely on others, even when we don't realize it. Perhaps we benefited from a family name, or an inheritance... or societal/racial privilege; but one way or another, we are all interdependent. That is why religion - all religion - is so emphatic about giving thanks! From the moment a child is born, we try to teach her/him to be thankful and grateful. So remember Jacob, and this very human struggle. It's ok to feel like you did it all on your own. Everyone feels that way sometimes. But remember there are two sides to every coin, and that with gratitude and interdependence comes a lot of much-needed humility.

Oh, and just for the record, I wrote this blog post entirely on my own. No help from anyone!!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Caroline and Max (my kids), December, 2016.
2. CC image courtesy of ChiaraS91 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Shalom on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 9, 2016

Va-Yeitzei: Noticing the Mystery Around Us

Sometimes we miss things - important things - even when they are right under our noses. I think most of us know this to be true, at least on a theoretical level, but then we're still surprised when it happens to us personally. We often like to think
of Judaism as a very sensible, rational religion. Not a lot of hocus-pocus or fairy dust. Sure, the texts of our tradition include plagues, splitting seas, and talking animals, but that was ancient "stuff," and it doesn't really fit into our worldview, at least not any more. Well, it often shocks people to learn that Judaism used to, hundreds of years ago, incorporate a lot of magical elements in the practice of our religion. Demons, spirits, amulets, and secret incantations were commonplace! And a lot of that Jewish mysticism still exists today, sometimes even right under our noses, we just don't always look at it. I think maybe it's time we take a peak...

This weekend, Ohev Shalom is hosting a Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and our guest is Dr. Joel Hecker. Dr. Hecker is a professor of Jewish mysticism, so this weekend Ohev is going to get a little weird
and supernatural. Our lecture topics include terms like "Kabbalistic Kissing," "Magical Powers in the Jewish Tradition," and "Food-Sparks in the Chasidic Imagination." Admittedly, these concepts are a little outside our comfort zone, as a community and for me personally. But Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah are actually essential parts of our people's history. We shouldn't censor any aspect of our heritage, and this is one side that often gets overlooked or casually dismissed. Perhaps we can stop for a moment and delve into it, and let's see what happens. I believe that engaging with this material can help us understand ourselves a bit better, and may give us a new perspective on other parts of our own lives.

This week in the Torah, our ancestor Jacob has a similar experience. Jacob isn't looking for spirituality. He is on the run from his vengeful brother, Esau, and is just trying to survive, alone, in the desert, on his way to live with his untrustworthy uncle, Laban. He is stressed, anxious, and sleep-deprived. Then, all of a sudden,
he has an incredibly powerful encounter with God. He has a vision at night, in which angels are ascending and descending a Heavenly ladder, and God then appears, promising Jacob protection and future prosperity. Jacob wakes up with a start, and proclaims, "Surely Adonai is in this place, and I did not know it!" He continues, "How awesome is this place!! This is none other than the House of God, and that is the Gateway to Heaven!" (Gen. 28:16-17) I think often we assume that God exists in certain places at certain times; either in synagogue, on mountain tops, or in Grand Canyons. Or maybe we don't believe God exists anywhere on earth... if at all. But then, almost magically, we may encounter God, or some Divine spark or spiritual moment, and it catches us off guard. I can relate to Jacob's astonishment. Sometimes the world isn't all about rational explanations and mundane answers; weird, inexplicable things CAN happen.

The question is, can we keep ourselves open to those occurrences? Are we able to still be surprised by the world, and to leave open the
possibility of wonder and amazement? As rational, scientific, sensible adults, we work pretty hard to close off that side of ourselves. "There's no such thing as magic!" we declare confidently. But perhaps we can also find just a little room for awe, in the old-school meaning of the word, where we remain open to the possibility of Divine encounters and stair-climbing angels? I truly believe it can open us up to new ways of thinking and feeling, and maybe offer new insights into our everyday lives. We think we know it all, but sometimes we need to humble ourselves to say "God is here, in this place, and I had no idea!" It can be really freeing.

So, are you ready to bring a little mysticism into your life?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of Robert Anning Bell's "un vol de fées," courtesy of Pimbrils on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Ambrosio Alciati's "The Kiss," courtesy of Pimbrils on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of James Tissot's "Jacob's Dream," courtesy of Shakko on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Shalom on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 2, 2016

Tol'dot: Nasty Women in the Torah

This is probably going to shock you, and I'm sure it's the first time you've heard ANYONE say it, but I actually think sometimes women are overlooked. I know, I know, a surprising revelation, isn't it? We would
like to think that we've advanced as a society. Sure, it was a Biblical malady, but surely we've solved this problem by now, no? Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question. But you know, the first step towards addressing (and maybe even solving) a problem is acknowledging that it IS a problem to begin with. As I look back at my own writings on this blog over the years, I have not done a good enough job highlighting women in the Torah. So this week, let's start by acknowledging an incredibly central character in our Torah reading who, most of the time - you guessed it - gets entirely overlooked.

As we turn our attention to the well-known story of Isaac and his two sons, our focus is often centered on the father, his blessing, and a fierce battle between Esau and Jacob. Year after year, I've written about this story, but primarily examined the tragic struggle between twins, or a father's inability to love two children equally, or the moral justifications for deceit and trickery. And yet,
if we look behind the scenes, and really open our eyes to ALL that is going on, someone else is really directing this entire drama. It's Isaac's wife, Jacob and Esau's mother, Laban's sister, but really a woman and a person in her own right - Rebecca. If we go back to last week's reading, she was a primary player then to, yet still frequently overlooked. When we make the extra effort, however, we notice that in last week's parashah AND in this week's, Rebecca holds her own against any other character.

Last week, she outsmarted her cunning brother, Laban. This week, she orchestrates and successfully executes an ingenious plan to secure her husband's blessing for her own favored son, Jacob. At the same time, there is a lot more to her than just her wiliness. Often, when commentators DO see Rebecca, they blame her for the fighting in the
family, or they chastise her for being shrewd. But back in chapter 24, we saw how generous Rebecca was, when she offered water to Abraham's servant, or how hospitable she was for inviting him to her home. Also, how physically strong she was, for watering all his thirsty camels (while the servant himself stood and watched...). She was brave for leaving her home; loyal to her husband AND her son; incredibly protective of her child, when he risked being cursed instead of blessed; and then again shielded Jacob from the wrath of his brother. Let us also not forget that she casually speaks with God, which few other individuals anywhere in the Bible do, and is prophetically told what will become of her twin sons. A more multi-dimensional character you would be hard-pressed to find!

If we take a step back for a moment, it is interesting to acknowledge that the Torah, supposedly (though not irrefutably...) written entirely by men, is willing to portray a woman with such power. And she's not the only one. What is going on here? Is it possible that some of our Biblical stories were written by women? (Yes.)
Or, perhaps even more shockingly, could it be that some men were able to handle stories about strong women? Which brings us back to today. We can do better. Even the Torah knows that to be true! And with all the misogyny that is now bubbling to the surface in our society, it is all the more imperative that feminists - female AND male - stand up and refuse to put up with it. When any one group is oppressed, it demeans us all. We cannot continue to overlook the "Rebeccas" in our lives, and we certainly shouldn't reduce them to some one-dimensional caricature. We cannot solve discrimination in a moment, or individually on our own. But one step at a time - changing one perception of one (ancient) woman at a time - and working together, we can all start lifting ourselves up from the hateful language that festers around us. It is time to stand up.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of WolfD59 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Philip Medhurst on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Juggler2005 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Thyra on Wikimedia Commons