Worth reading on Chanukah this year

Those who follow me on Facebook may already have seen these links, but I wanted to share them here as well -- two of my favorite new posts on Chanukah this year, both written by dear friends, fellow ALEPHniks, and fellow Rabbis Without Borders.

First is a post by Rabbi Hannah Dresner:

...Eternal light in the Temple symbolized an uninterrupted connection between God and Israel. The Temple’s desecration ruptured that connection but when the menorah was rekindled with the tiniest amount of remaining oil, the Temple light did not go out! This miracle was an event of great comfort within the Maccabee narrative, and is, to us, in any age.

Imagining the horror of a Godless world prompts me to consider the threats to divine connection in our own time and my role as a partner in maintaining eternal light. Through this lens the holiday has taken on profundity, asking something serious of me, something consequential to the nature of God and to the repair of our world...

-- Hanukkah is coming: Don't Let the Light Go Out

And the second is by Rabbi David Evan Markus: 

Hope, by its nature, transcends perceived reality however bleak. Hope is what remains when the night seems most dark, when the chips seem most down, when the deck seems most stacked against us. Hope sometimes is irrational, propelling us forward (or keeping us afloat) against seemingly endless odds. And yet, time and again, history and spirituality vindicate irrational hope as a powerful force of renewal.

-- Becoming the Light

Read and enjoy.


Light

 

The moon wanes
and I ache.
Kindle one flame
against the dark.

If I can
say your name
even to myself
I'm not alone.

You remind me
that dwindling hope
is the seed
of hope reborn.

Even down here
where I've fallen --
look: your light
is with me.

Can I awaken
you from below,
give you even
a measure of

what I receive?
Refracted between us --
what a blaze
might we shine?

 


This is another poem in my ongoing series of poems of yearning for the Beloved. (It may or may not make it into Texts to the Holy -- I already have 36 poems in that manuscript, which seems like the right shape for that chapbook, but I'm considering whether they are the right 36 or whether some of them might need to change. I might swap this one in for one of the existing poems.)

The moon wanes... Tonight we kindle the first light of Chanukah. Chanukah always comes as the moon of Kislev is waning and as we in the northern hemisphere are approaching, or already in, the year's period of greatest dark. You remind me...  At this time of year we are always reading the Joseph story, replete with its themes of descent for the sake of ascent. (I've written about that before.) For Joseph, as perhaps for us, falling into a place which might seem hopeless is the first step toward rising to something better. Can I awaken you... The idea that we can awaken or arouse God from "below," from here in creation, and in so doing heighten the light or blessing which God pours into creation (אתערותא דלתתא) comes from the Zohar.

May your Chanukah be filled with light.


Anticipating the return of the sun

101747615

Human beings have been paying attention to the ebb and flow of daylight for a very, very long time. Stonehenge, that iconic circle of stone slabs in Great Britain, was built sometime between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE. Its central sight-lines point to the location where the summer sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), and where the winter sun sets on the winter solstice (December 21).

In the fifth century BCE, in Persia, December 21 was the most important holiday of the year. It was called Shabe Yaldā, which means 'birthday eve.' According to Persian mythology, the god Mithra was born on the 22nd of December (to a virgin mother, no less! Dear Christianity: apparently the Zoroastrians came up with this sacred story first.) He symbolized light, truth, and goodness.

Among Romans, in early centuries of the Common Era, December 25 was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus, the birthday of the returning or unconquered sun. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. Elsewhere on the continent, among the Vainakh peoples of the northern Caucasus (think Chechnya), the 25th of December was the date of Malkh, the sun's birthday.

In the 4th century of the Common Era we find the first written documentation of the festival of Yule, a midwinter festival held by Germanic peoples of northern Europe around December 21. (An Old Norse variation on the name also appears in Icelandic eddas of the 13th century.) Yule traditions include the burning of a yule log, keeping a fire burning through the longest night until the sun begins to return.

Among pre-Christian Slavs, the 21st of December was Koročun, the day when the "old sun" of the old year was defeated by darkness; the day transitioned into Koleda, when the "new sun" of the new year is born. One Polish tradition for Koleda was hanging evergreen boughs decorated with apples, colored paper, stars made of straw, and ribbons. (So decorating evergreens was a solstice custom.)

Among Christians, the 25th of December is of course Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century rabbi whom they consider to be the son of God. He is referred-to in Christian scripture as "the light of the world." In the Christian scriptures there is a recapitulation of Isaiah's "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;" for Christians, this light is Jesus.

Jews celebrate light in the darkness of midwinter via the festival of Chanukah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev. (Because our calendar is lunisolar, that date moves around on the Gregorian calendar.) The moon of Kislev is always waning when the festival of Chanukah begins. A few days into Chanukah we get the moon-dark night between the old moon and the new moon -- truly winter's darkest night.

During each night of Chanukah we kindle an additional light in the chanukiyah, literally bringing more light into the world as each long winter night (in this hemisphere) passes and is gone. We light our candles in remembrance of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days instead of for one -- a representation of God's presence in the world and in our hearts, burning ever-bright.

I love knowing that since time immemorial, human beings have marked the hinge-point when the earth tilts in the other direction and the days begin to change again. I love knowing that when I kindle my sweet little Chanukah lights, not only am I part of a chain of Jewish tradition of bringing light into the darkness, but I'm part of a practice which spans much of recorded human history.

Happy Solstice to all! Here's to the returning sun!

 

Related: Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice at My Jewish Learning by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

 

 


Miketz and Chanukah: letting your light shine

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


The first thing Joseph does, when summoned from Pharaoh's dungeon, is shave and change his clothes. Presumably he does this because it's not appropriate to appear before the ruler of the land in rags... but given the importance of clothing in the Joseph story, I see something deeper.

Remember his coat of many colors. Remember the garment which he relinquished to Potiphar's wife in escaping from her clutches. Remember Tamar, who disguises herself in a cloak in order to orchestrate justice. Clothing in this story is symbolic of internal reality.

As a child I learned from my mother that how we dress gives us an opportunity to show respect for others. We dress nicely because that's a way of showing the people we meet that they matter. Surely that's part of what Joseph is doing at this moment in his story.

I also learned from my mother that how we dress can impact how we feel inside. When I'm not feeling great, sometimes brushing my hair and putting on lipstick can help me perk up and feel ready to face the world. That may have been part of what Joseph was doing, too.

And another thing he may have been doing is adjusting his outer appearance so that it matches what he knows about himself inside. A number of Hasidic teachers speak about the tension between pnimiut, what's hidden deep inside, and chitzoniut, the external face one presents to the world. We each carry a divine spark inside. That spark connects us with the Holy One of Blessing.

That spark is the source of our light; as we read in psalms, "the soul of a person is the candle of God." As we kindle candles, God kindles souls. If we're willing to be kindled, we can carry divine light into the world. But we each get to choose whether and how to reveal that light.

For me, one of the challenges of spiritual life is trying to ensure that my external face matches my internal light. Deep down, I'm always connected with God. But can I manifest that reality in the face I show to the world? Am I willing to risk letting my inner light shine?

Because it does feel like a risk sometimes. This world doesn't always reward those who let their light shine. I could be laughed at. I could be sneered at. I could be told that I am delusional, or naive. Someone could lash out at me because they don't like my light.

One of the primary mitzvot of Chanukah is pirsumei nes, publicizing the miracle. This is the origin of the custom of putting a chanukiyah in the window or in a public place -- because we're not supposed to keep it hidden, we're supposed to let the light of Chanukah shine.

As we're supposed to let the light of our souls shine. Whatever clothing we wear, whatever persona we adopt, it's our job in this world to be human candles. To shed light in the darkness, wherever we go.

When do you feel most able to let the light of your soul shine through?

Who are the people who help you cultivate that feeling?

Where are the places, what are the practices, which help you shine the most?

This Chanukah, will you rededicate yourself to letting your light shine?

 


Worth reading (on Chanukah)

327419672_6ad86af135_z

We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?...

Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might educe in us. On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?...

"The soul of man is the lamp of God," the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark. As the Sefas Emes puts it in discussing Hanukkah, "A human being is created to light up this world" (Hanukkah, 1874).

All of these brief quotes are from Lighting Up the Darkness by Rabbi Shai Held. His whole essay is beautiful and I commend it to you.

Tonight we'll enter into the fourth night of Chanukah. Chag urim sameach -- wishing you a joyful continuation of the festival of lights! And Shabbat shalom, too.

 

Photo: fourth night of Chanukah. From my flickr stream, taken a few years ago.


Three from the vaults - old Chanukah photos

For #throwbackthursday, here are three old Chanukah photos. The first two of these are photographs of me with my middle brother.

Chanukah84

This one's about 30 years old. If you look closely you can see my homemade Chanukah decorations taped to the framed Calder print on the rear wall. I think this was taken the year that my parents were in Kenya over Chanukah, traveling with a friend who was a hematologist and whose work frequently took him to Nairobi. My parents traveled with a tiny chanukiyah which held birthday candles, and arranged for me to celebrate Chanukah with different family members on different nights.

 

Chanukah88

And this one's from 1988. My bat mitzvah took place on Shabbat Chanukah, so my brother -- who is a woodworker in his spare time -- made this beautiful chanukiyah which holds twelve-inch tapers. We lit it at my bat mitzvah, and my parents used it for many years thereafter. People in Texas like to joke that everything is bigger there; this chanukiyah definitely fits that bill.

(That same brother is responsible for the giant mahogany dreidel which I brought to Massachusetts during my last year of college. I remember placing it on the coffee table in the house I shared with several friends that year. When I came back, one of my housemates held the dreidel reverently in his hands. He looked up at me and without missing a beat said "very large Jews have been here!")

Batmitzvah

While I'm indulging in Chanukah remembrances, I want to honor the fact that today is my maternal grandfather Eppie's 18th yahrzeit. (Here is a post I shared about him ten years ago on this Hebrew date.) This photograph was staged on the day before my bat mitzvah, which was during Chanukah - you can see my father on one side, my grandfather Eppie z"l on the other, handing the Torah to me.

I hope that your Chanukah continues to be joyous and bright!


Happy Chanukah!

Tonight at sundown we'll enter into the Festival of Lights, also known as the Festival of Rededication, also known as Chanukah. (Or Hanukkah. Whatever. It's a Hebrew word. Its real spelling is חֲנֻכָּה -- I think the English variant with the "ch" comes closest, but mileage varies.)

Chanukah

First candle in the chanukiyah.

(Chanukiyah may not be a familiar term for everyone. A chanukiyah is a special menorah made for Chanukah, with eight branches and a ninth candle for lighting the others, instead of six branches and a seventh candle for lighting the others which is what you would find on a menorah designed for giving light but not specifically for commemorating the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days.)

If you're looking for some good Chanukah-themed reading, I recommend Abigail Pogrebin's recent 'A Split in the Jewish Soul': Hanukkah Reconsidered in the Forward. It's part of her excellent "Wondering Jew" series, and it opens up some important questions about the holiday and what it means to us as modern Jews -- especially as we struggle with questions of innovation and change.

Or, on a different note: Chanukah Human Menorah. "Do-it-yourself menorahs are quite common this time of year. Take some sort of material, a little arts here, a little crafts there, and you have yourself a handcrafted, bespoke fixture of light. //  Can we apply these basic elements to transform our personal lives into menorahs? Can we, as human beings, become fixtures of light in everything we do?"

To all who celebrate, I wish a joyous Festival of Lights! May we all experience increased light during these dark days.


December / Kislev: be kind to yourself, and remember that you are enough

We're well into the lunar month of Kislev (which contains Chanukah), and on the Gregorian calendar today is the first day of the month of December. I remembered that I'd written something about this season which had to do with gentleness to oneself, so I went back to look -- and found that two years ago I shared excerpts from the very posts I was looking for. So I'm sharing the same excerpts again today.


Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating?

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child.

-- A call for kindness during Kislev, 2011


[T]he matter of having enough, or not having enough, is surely an emotional one, as much as or more than it is a fiscal one. Scarcity is a kind of mitzrayim, a narrow place. And the fear of scarcity can be even worse, in the way the fear of a thing is usually worse than the thing itself. Fear of scarcity can be existential, can make the whole world seem constrained.

Fear of not having enough can blur into fear of not being enough. Fear that if we're not smart enough, or rich enough, or thin enough, we won't be valued. Won't be seen for who we really are. Won't be loved.

-- Enough, 2007


Three tiny teachings on Chanukah's light

Light_shining1The Bnei Yissaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov) teaches: On Chanukah, we are given part of the or ha-ganuz, the primordial light which has been hidden-away since the moment of Creation and which is preserved for the righteous in the world to come. (This is the light of the first day of creation, before the sun and moon and stars were created; not literal light, but a kind of spiritual or metaphysical light, the light of expanded consciousness.) With this light, you could see from one end of the earth to the other. And with this light, we kindle other holy lights -- the souls within each of us.

(From his teachings on the month of Kislev; the final insight comes from Michael Strassfeld's commentary in The Jewish Holidays.)

 The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) teaches: "The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the spring we search our homes for leaven with a candle. (That's the ritual of bedikat chametz, hiding some leaven around the house and then "discovering" it with a candle, to ceremonially burn it before the holday begins.) At this season, we search our innermost selves for the spark of God which illuminates us (as the Chanukah candles illuminate what's around us.)

The mishkan, the dwelling-place-for-God (e.g. the holy Temple, the one whose rededication we celebrate at this season even though it's been destroyed now for almost two thousand years) -- that holy dwelling-place is within each of us, as we read in Torah, "they shall build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them." (In other words: we built the sanctuary not so that God could live in it, but so that through the process of the building we might open our hearts for God to dwell in us.)

The Temple no longer exists; in our era the mishkan is  hidden -- but we can still find it by searching for it, which we do with the (metaphorical) candles of the mitzvot. We search for God's presence by "lighting the candles" of doing mitzvot. Doing mitzvot with all of our hearts, our souls, our life-force, is a way of searching for God's presence in the world.  Through doing mitzvot with intention and awareness, we are able to find the point within us which is the hidden mishkan, the dwelling place for God.

(Here's a longer exploration of this teaching: Sfat Emet on light and Chanukah, 2010.)

 The Sfat Emet also teaches: The miracle of Chanukah was one of light. This light allows us to find the hidden illumination / enlightenment which is in darkness and in our alienation.

* * *

As we kindle the Chanukah lights tonight for the last time this year, may we experience their light as a glimpse of that primordial light from the first moment of creation; may we find our souls kindled through the act of doing this mitzvah, and may we recognize ourselves as dwelling-places for God's presence; and may our lights connect us with the hidden illumination which can be found in even our darkest emotional and spiritual places.

 

 

 

 


Chanukah and the obligation to sit still and notice

One of the customs of Chanukah is to sing a couple of hymns after we light Chanukah candles. One of them is Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages." (Here's an abbreviation of the traditional version. Here's Reb Zalman's version, which is singable to the same tune but celebrates the miracles of Chanukah in a different way.) And the other hymn is Hanerot Hallalu, "The lights which we light." Here's that second one:

  Hanerot-hallalu

"We light these lights for [commemoration of] the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations." (From Talmud, Sofrim 20:6)

This little song is often overlooked and is not well known. Which is a shame, because it's quite wonderful.

Hanerot Hallalu teaches us that we light the candles of the chanukiyyah in order to remember miracles and wonders, and that their light is holy -- so holy, in fact, that we're not supposed to use that light for ordinary things. Instead, our job is to just enjoy them. To look at them. To contemplate them, and their small beauty, and to cultivate an upwelling of thanks and praise. In this way, Chanukah invites us into contemplative practice.

The Shabbat candles which we kindle each week are also holy. But they don't come with this same obligation. It's perfectly permissible to eat one's Shabbat dinner by the light of the Shabbat candles. But the Chanukah candles aren't meant to be used in any mundane way. The shamash candle, the "helper" which lights the others, casts ordinary usable light. But the eight candles in the chanukiyyah proper are there not to give us light to do the dishes by -- they're there to give us a meditative focus, something to look at as we coax wonder and gratitude to arise within us.

At this hectic season -- Thanksgiving and "Black Friday" just past, Christmas and New Year's on the horizon, everywhere around us a tumult of coveting and shopping and spending, the academic semester racing to its finale -- the very idea of taking the duration of the Chanukah candles as a time for quiet and meditation seems like a miracle. May we all be blessed to find our moments of stillness and peace as the candles burn low.


Here's a choral setting of Hanerot Hallalu. And here's a solo setting of an unknown melody. If your tastes run more toward a cappella, here's Six13's version. And here's a simple sung version, accompanied beautifully on piano.


A few Chanukah gems

2096474062_6299f4858e_nIn ten years of blogging at Velveteen Rabbi, I've shared a fair number of Chanukah posts. As the holiday approaches (tonight at sundown!), I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorites:

  • Chanukah has sparked a few poems, among them Excavating the Herodian oil lamps (2013) and Rededication (2012)
  • A call for kindness during Kislev (2011) "This can be a challenging season. Here in the northern hemisphere the days are darkening (and at the latitude of northern Berkshire, the days feel short indeed!) Thanksgiving is an opportunity for gathering with loved ones, feasting, and cultivating gratitude...though for those who are alone, the family feast day may feel even more isolating. And even for those who are blessed to gather with family, a holiday like Thanksgiving may raise or exacerbate old tensions and old hurts. On top of that, of course, some of us are introverts -- which means that concentrated togetherness-time, even if it's something we anticipate and savor, can be draining."
  • Mai Chanukah? (2008) "This is the time of year when people argue about the meaning of Chanukah. // It's an old question. Mai chanukah? is how the rabbis begin the Talmud's discussion of the holiday: "What is Chanukah?" Maybe the simplest answer is, it's a multivalent holiday; it always has been..."
  • Enough (2007) "During Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of unexpected abundance. The cruse of oil that shouldn't have sufficed, sufficed. We came face-to-face with a lack, and acknowledged the lack, and acted as though there were enough anyway, and that leap of faith made it so that there was enough."
  • How Chanukah feels (2005) "Chanukah feels like a box of chocolates I get to enjoy at just the right pace: one at a time, stretching the box out to last a whole week, parcelling out the sweetness bite by bite."
  • The smallest miracle (2003) "[According to the Sfat Emet] Chanukah was the last miracle God performed for us, so we must find special strength in it...Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle."

(You can find all of the Chanukah-related posts in the Chanukah category.) Chag sameach!

Image source: my flickr stream.


Excavating the Herodian oil lamps

 


Oil-lampSlit the packing tape. Lift the inner box.
Slide a knife again and listen to muted rainfall:

styrofoam pebbles pouring down.
The stand emerges first, round and heavy.

Then nine swaddled packages, light
as birds' bones, sized to fit in a palm.

Scissor gently through the bubble wrap,
unfold the layers to reveal ancient clay.

What foot pedaled the wheel, what fingers
wet with slip attached each graceful spout

and smoothed it with the flat of a knife
when Herod ruled in Jerusalem?

Two thousand years ago these held light
in the gloomy season on the cusp of Kislev.

Even now, in a world of compact fluorescents
and taillights glowing in the rain like rubies

we guard our wisps of flame, whatever lets us
hope even as the days grow dark.

 


My parents bought these lamps decades ago, while visiting my middle brother who was at the time working on a kibbutz. They date back to the early years of the Common Era. The person who sold them said, "they were found all together in a house; they must have been a menorah!" I suppose it's possible; the Chanukah story comes from the second century B.C.E., so it does predate these. In any case, the simple fact that they were made that long ago takes my breath away.

These used to be in my parents' bedroom, in the house I grew up in. I remember seeing them there countless times when I was a kid, and learning what they were, and how old, and where they had come from. In unboxing it now, there's a way in which I feel as though I'm excavating not only these artifacts from their storage, but also my own childhood. They grace my synagogue office now, a reminder of our deep-seated need (on both literal and metaphorical levels) to kindle light against the darkness.

For more on the lamps in question: Ancient Pottery Database: Herodian oil lamps; Fowler Bible Collection: Herodian Oil Lamp.


This week's portion: on abundance and dreams

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


At the beginning of today's Torah portion, Pharaoh dreams two dreams. First, seven handsome cows arise, and seven lean cows devour them. Then seven fat ears of corn arise, and seven lean ears devour them. None of Pharaoh's soothsayers can interpret these troubling visions. Fortunately, Pharaoh's cupbearer remembers that when he was in jail a few years back, he met an Israelite named Joseph.

Pharaoh summons Joseph and says, I hear you can interpret dreams. But Joseph demurs. "Not I, but God." Joseph doesn't have the answers; God does. But Joseph can serve as a channel, opening himself to allow God's insight to flow through.

It's December in the modern world, and the commercials with which we are deluged remind me of Pharaoh's dreams. Every time my television tells me that if I really loved my spouse I would surprise him on Christmas morning with an expensive car, or diamonds, or electronics, or new clothes, I think of Pharaoh's sleek fattened cows. Richness. Abundance. That's the dream the television is selling.

But in showering our loved ones with lavish affection, it's easy to overspend our budgets and wind up with painfully lean wallets come January. In the Biblical model, that's the seven emaciated cows who devoured the seven fat ones. We fear that scarcity will follow abundance, good fortune dissipating like the smoke left behind when the Chanukah candles gutter.

Continue reading "This week's portion: on abundance and dreams" »


December Dialogue



There's some time this morning.
We could go to Target.

    We have plenty of Dora pull-ups.
    Why would we go to the mall today?
   
But they sell shiny decorations.
Maybe there's a Chanukah banner.

    We browsed that aisle last week.
    There weren't any banners then.
   
There might be one now! Or --
how about that hanging chanukiyyah?

    We don't need a chanukiyyah made of felt.
    And neither does the synagogue.
   
But our lone banner looks sad.
There ought to be more sparkle.

    Why the yearning for glitz and glitter?
    What are you really hungry for?
   
My glands hurt. It's dark so early.
I want to be swaddled, cuddled.
 
     I understand. I feel that way too.
     December's never easy.
    
I keep thinking: maybe more money,
more glamour, more presents...

    I think you mean more presence.
    And if it's the dark that's getting you --
   
It is. And the rain adds insult
to injury. Maybe I need a lamp.

    -- try lighting one thin candle.
    Then tomorrow, just one more.
   
But they're so tiny, flickering,
against the maelstrom, the juggernaut.

    That's what makes them real.
    Like a child's jam-smeared kiss.
   
Or a little voice saying
I love you mommy at bedtime.

    Or the faith that, against all odds,
    what's imperfect is enough.

 


 

One of the things I value about my spiritual practices, meditation among them, is that they offer me opportunities to pay attention to the thoughts and ideas and stories which pop up in my mind all the time. When I started paying attention to one of those trains of thought, responding to it with openness and curiosity to see where it would take me, the idea for this poem arose.

All responses welcome, as always.


Another poem for Chanukah

A poem by Aileen Lucia Fisher for Chanukah. (Today we're in day three of the eight day festival; we'll begin the fourth day tonight at sundown.)

 

Light the first of eight tonight—
the farthest candle to the right.

Light the first and second, too,
when tomorrow's day is through.

Then light three, and then light four—
every dusk one candle more

Till all eight burn bright and high,
honoring a day gone by

When the Temple was restored,
rescued from the Syrian lord,

And an eight-day feast proclaimed—
The Festival of Lights—well named

To celebrate the joyous day
when we regained the right to pray
to our one God in our own way.

(Source: Light the Festive Candles, at the Poetry Foundation.) Wishing a joyous festival of lights to all who celebrate.


Sufganiyot in the Saturday Poetry Series

Thanks to the Saturday Poetry Series for reprinting my Chanukah poem Sufganiyot (which was originally published in Zeek in 2004.)

I particularly appreciate Saturday editor Sivan Butler-Rotholz's kind comments:

With today’s piece Rabbi Rachel Barenblat elevates these phenomenal holiday treats from the realm of the epicurial to a heightened world where femininity, sexuality, and deep fried delicacies become one...

Read the poem, and her commentary, here: Saturday poetry series presents: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Happy Chanukah to all!


A new poem for Chanukah

REDEDICATION


Some days I can enter
the holy of holies
by snapping my fingers:
the door swings open.

Other days I ransack
every pocket to find the key
and when I get inside
the room is darkened.

There's mud on the floor,
the intricate altar
is grimy, askew,
its heartbeat silenced.

I sweep the ashes away
open my thermos of tea
re-hang the tapestries,
great branches arching.

At last I light the lamp:
the glint, the glow
regenerating, the homefire
eternally burning.

Learn to trust again
that this oil is enough
to open my eyes
to God, already here.


In our Friday morning meditation yesterday, in preparation for the start of Chanukah (which begins tonight), I led us in a guided meditation, imagining what it was like to enter the temple which had been desecrated and to rekindle the ner tamid, the eternal light. Then I invited us each to enter into the holy of holies of our own hearts, and to see ourselves rededicating our own internal altars.

This poem came out of that meditation. I offer a bright shiny piece of virtual Chanukah gelt to anyone who recognizes its recasting of images from some perhaps unlikely secular sources!  For more on the idea that we each carry the holy of holies in our own hearts, I recommend Rabbi Menachem Creditor's Within Our Hearts the Holy of Holies, in Sh'ma.

A happy and joyous Chanukah to all who celebrate. May our eternal lights burn brightly, and may we rededicate ourselves at this season to the task of bringing light.


Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

What there is to learn from this portion is to prepare yourself during the good days in which holiness is revealed, to set that light solidly within the heart so it will be there during the bad days when the holiness is hidden.

That's from the Sfat Emet -- the Hasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- on Miketz, the Torah portion in which we read about Pharaoh's dreams about the fat cows and the lean cows which devour them. We'll be reading Miketz not this Shabbat, but next -- on the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah. Chanukah, when we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of light over darkness.

My dear teacher R' Daniel Siegel recently published, on his blog, a series of teachings from the Sfat Emet on Chanukah. Reb Daniel writes:

The S'fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.

Such a discovery requires sustained reading, and I am so grateful to Reb Daniel for sharing it. How remarkable that over the course of thirty-three years, the S'fat Emet offered nineteen teachings on this week's Torah portion, eighteen of which began with the same midrashic citation. Perhaps -- operating on the theory that one teaches best what one most needs to learn -- this was an idea with which he struggled, and therefore kept turning and turning it to find what was in it.

Year after year, the S'fat Emet returns to this idea that God sets limits around darkness, that darkness will not endure forever. Darkness, which he links with the yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination, has its limits; light, which is linked with blessing and with Torah and with Shabbat, is endless.

Living in the northern hemisphere, I find in this teaching the same message I find in the experience of kindling Chanukah lights: the light is always increasing. The darkness won't be forever. Of course, the darkness in these teachings is always more than merely literal.

The light which was created during the six days of creation shone from one end of the world to the other and was beyond time and contraction. The Holy Blessed One saw that the world wasn't worthy of it because of sin and hid it away for the righteous...Therefore, anyone who needs to attain an enlightenment must first pass through the hiding of the light in darkness.

I've only just begun reading and processing these S'fat Emet texts. I should spend the time to pore over each one in Hebrew as well as reading them quickly in English -- I know from experience that going into the Hebrew often gives me a different, a deeper, grasp of the concepts and the teachings. But on a first reading, in English, I'm struck by what I'm finding there. And today, I'm moved by this idea that in order to access the light, one often finds oneself moving through darkness.

For all who feel trapped in darkness right now -- the literal darkness of northern hemisphere winter; the emotional and spiritual darkness of trouble and sorrow -- I hope these glimpses of the S'fat Emet's teaching on next week's parsha may offer some glimmers of light.


Two reprints for these darkening December / Kislev days

Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating?

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child.

-- A call for kindness during Kislev, 2011


[T]he matter of having enough, or not having enough, is surely an emotional one, as much as or more than it is a fiscal one. Scarcity is a kind of mitzrayim, a narrow place. And the fear of scarcity can be even worse, in the way the fear of a thing is usually worse than the thing itself. Fear of scarcity can be existential, can make the whole world seem constrained.

Fear of not having enough can blur into fear of not being enough. Fear that if we're not smart enough, or rich enough, or thin enough, we won't be valued. Won't be seen for who we really are. Won't be loved.

-- Enough, 2007