I Sing

I sing to God with my muchness
my much-too-much-ness
my awkward, oversized emotions
everything over the top

I sing to God
with my enormous tender heart
pouring out too many words
even if no one reads them

I sing to God
with my belly, my softness,
with every ounce of flesh
I was taught to hide

(the psalmist didn't say anything
about sucking in my tummy,
and holding my breath
is the opposite of singing)

I sing to God
even though my range is too small
even though my voice breaks
even though my heart breaks

anyone who wants me
to take up less space
doesn't deserve my music
but I sing anyway

 


This poem arises out of a creative (mis)reading of Psalm 46 verse 2 -- usually translated as "I will sing to God while I exist," or "I will sing to God with what is within me," it can be creatively translated as "I will sing to God with my much-ness."

On a semi-related note, my favorite setting of this verse is by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, and is online here


The gift of bread

Challah

On the Friday of my son's winter vacation, I was home with him doing the things we did during winter break (board games, gingerbread house, youtube videos.) I was home and I had time on my hands, so I made challah. I hadn't baked challah since Rosh Hashanah. I'm a working mother, primary custodial parent to a third grader: most weeks I buy challah at the co-op, or in a pinch we make motzi over whatever other kind of bread we have in the house, an English muffin or a croissant or two. But during winter break I had the spaciousness, so I got out my Bennington pottery bread bowl and I made a batch of challah.

My son wanted round challah, because he likes it better than the braid that's traditional among Ashkenazi households during the year. I didn't feel quite right about making the spiral-shaped round challah that I make for Rosh Hashanah: that's a special shape for that one time of year! But we compromised: I found a new shape in my challah book (A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer) that takes its inspiration from the sun. It came out beautifully. My son devoured it, declaring it the best challah ever. "You bake way better challah than they have at the store," he told me, and I beamed. "I wish you made challah every week."

This week I am trying a new rhythm to my Friday. This morning while getting my son fed and dressed and packed up for school, I started a batch of challah dough. By the time we left for school and work, it was sitting in the newly-washed bread bowl, covered and rising. After a few hours of work, I'll drop by the condo again (it's a mere five minutes from the shul) and shape the loaves. At the end of my lunch break, I'll put them in the oven. At the end of my work day, I'll take one of them on a pastoral visit to someone who is ill -- I kneaded prayers for healing and comfort into the dough. The other challah will be for my son and me.

If this works, I want to make it a practice. I miss baking challah. My first job after college was working at the bookstore here in town, and I organized my schedule so that I could have Fridays off to bake challah each week. (That was 1996, and that's when my now-ex-husband -- at the time, my boyfriend -- gave me the enormous Bennington pottery bowl I use for bread dough even now.) But in the decades since then, life has expanded to fill the space I give it, and I haven't made time for regular baking in years. Baking challah feels good. I love the way the dough feels in my hands. I love praying, sometimes singing, while I knead.

There's an alchemy to baking bread. Flour and water, salt and yeast -- and, okay, in this case also oil and eggs and a little bit of sugar -- transmute into something beautiful. Baking challah is a comfort to my neshamah, my soul. And it's something beautiful to place on my Shabbes table tonight, alongside the candlesticks that were an ordination gift, alongside the blue kiddush cup I bought myself when I moved a few years ago, alongside the blue-and-silver handwashing bowl I received from a friend who is a Jewish Buddhist nun. May our hopes rise like challah dough, and be met. May all be nourished, may all be fed, may all be loved.

 


Where I needed to go

45748150845_e476c36bff_zEvery January there is a day when I first return to my desk after the hectic rush of December. My son is back in school. I've discharged my responsibilities to the community I serve, and today is a home-day. I resist the temptation to fritter it away on laundry and unloading the dishwasher -- the little endless maintenance tasks of daily life.

The first thing is to clear the desk of extraneous things that have landed there during the annual hiatus from writing. I need a clear physical space to call forth the clear internal space within which poems can arise. Maybe classical music is called-for. Kronos Quartet's Early Music has a spareness that matches my heart, matches the season.

Next I reread all of last year's poems. It's an annual ritual. Some of them are familiar to me: I remember writing them, revising them, I recognize them in all of their incarnations. Inevitably I find one I had forgotten altogether. I read the scraps and partial poems, too. I don't know the shape of my next book of poems, but I get glimpses.

Then I open a blank file and let the words come. The first poem of this new year surprises me. When I started out I thought I knew where it might go, but it takes a turn midway through. When I reach the end I realize the poem was always intending to go there. I just had to open myself to surprise, letting it take me where I didn't know I needed to go.

 


All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

IMG_0120

Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

IMG_0121

  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us...

 

That's the beginning of my latest post for Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Click through to read the whole thing: All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s


Vaera: Listening for a new name

Download

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔''ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)



So what? What is Torah trying to tell us here in this verse from this week's Torah portion? What is this verse really about?

We could read this verse as the text’s attempt to paper over an inconsistency. Our names for God change over the course of Torah, from our earliest ancestors to later ones like Moses. El-Shaddai is an older name in the strata of our sacred text, and יהו׳׳ה is a later one. A historical-critical reading uses those different names to show that Torah was written by different authors at different times. We could read this verse as an editorial attempt to smooth that out.

We could read it through the lens of what each of these divine Names means. El-Shaddai can be rendered as “God of Enoughness,” or even “The Breasted God,” God of nurturance and sustenance. יהו׳׳ה seems to be some kind of permutation of the verb “to be.” Maybe this verse comes to show us that in our spiritual infancy God was a Mother figure. As our people are growing up, spiritually, maybe we’re ready to handle a God-concept that’s more existential.

Whether we’re inclined to read it through a historical lens, or through a close-reading / etymology lens, we can always choose to read it through a spiritual lens. Spiritually, here’s what this verse offers me this year: God takes on different Names at different times. Our work is to open ourselves to the new name that will help us reach the land of promise. It was true of our mythic ancestors at this moment in the Exodus story, and it’s true of us here and now, today.

In last week’s Torah portion, at the bush that burned but was not consumed, God introduced God’s-self to Moses as אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה,  “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” אהיה, “I will be” or “I Am Becoming,” comes from the same root as the name יהו׳׳ה. That Name can’t be directly translated, but it seems to imply something about the nature of being and becoming itself. God is ever-changing. And we, made in the divine image, are always becoming, too.

“Your ancestors knew Me under one name, but here’s a new one,” God tells us. Sometimes we need to let go of an old Name, an old chapter, in order to be ready for a new one.  For instance, from House of Israel and Chevra Chai Adom, the two nascent Jewish communities in early North Adams, into Congregation Beth Israel. We remember and honor our community’s earlier names in its earlier incarnation. As part of our history, they will accompany us into our future.

And sometimes the work lies in learning to balance the old name and the new one. For instance, from Jacob to Israel, “the Heel” to “the Godwrestler.” Israel is the spiritual ancestor for whom our people is named -- we are the Godwrestlers, the ones named after our willingness to grapple with the Holy! And yet, even once Jacob becomes known as Israel, Torah uses both names for him, reminding us of the need to integrate who we’ve been with who we’re becoming.

Sometimes a name stays the same, while the inner essence changes and grows. When my son was born my name didn’t change, but my soul changed. Or maybe my soul grew more fully into who I had always been becoming, on some deep-down level I couldn’t understand until that change came to pass. And: when I became a rabbi I acquired a new name to live up to and live into, but I didn’t lose the name given to me at birth. I’m both Rabbi and Rachel.

“Each of us has a name,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda, “given by the seasons, and given by our blindness.” What new name might be unfolding for each of us as we move deeper into this season? What name do we receive as a result of our blindness -- what we are we blind to, about ourselves or about each other? What do we need to learn to see about who we are, about who we can choose to become, about how we can choose to become?

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” Until now. At this moment in our people’s story, on the cusp of the Exodus from the Narrow Place toward the Land of Promise, God gives us a new name for God’s-self, a name that hints at becoming and at being itself. God says: you used to know me in one way, but open your eyes and see that I am more than what you knew. I am Becoming itself.

This week’s Torah portion invites us to ask: what’s the new Name of God that’s being revealed to us now? What’s the new possibility, the new identity, the new growth, the new becoming that we can vision-forth in this moment that was never possible before? This isn’t “just” about God. It’s about us, too, as we grow and change. What could we be becoming? What could our community be becoming, if we could open ourselves to who the future is calling us to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Congregation Beth Israel. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

 


Building a Gingerbread Bayit -- at Builders Blog

45850977834_6192115fc7_z

Over winter break, my son and I built this gingerbread house.

Out of that experience came a short essay about tradition, innovation, and what building a gingerbread bayit teaches me about building the Jewish future. And because Steve Silbert is awesome, he sketchnoted my essay. Here's how it begins:

IMG_0071

“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid...

Read the whole thing at Builders Blog: Building A Gingerbread Bayit.


A mother and a mystic -- during school vacation

I am reading the second essay in Cynthia Bourgeault's The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. She is talking about the difference between the nondual, in Eastern thinking, and the unitive in Christian thinking.

I am thinking about Jewish parallels to the Christian theology of mystical union to which she alludes. Remembering Reb Zalman z"l saying that we can relate intellectually to the transcendent, but the heart needs a God with Whom the heart can be in relationship. I'm thinking about my own spiritual life and how frequently my awareness of holiness is in yetzirah, the realm of the heart.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" My nine-year-old wants my attention. He is building a LEGO set and wants to show me something cool about how it works.

As I set down the book and try to listen whole-heartedly to his explanation of this LEGO Minecraft set and how the lever works to raise and lower the Iron Golem, my mind offers me the core question of spiritual direction as I have learned to practice it: where is God in this?

My answer, of course, arises in synchronicity with the passage I was just reading about the unitive and the relational. God is in relationship -- or can be, anyway. The challenge of the divorced-parent mystic during winter vacation is precisely finding God "in this" -- in baking and decorating cookies, in reading Harry Potter aloud. The work is finding the God-presence, the holiness, in the laundry and the LEGOs -- or more specifically, in the relationship with my kid that lies behind the laundry and the LEGOs.

It's not the "union with the divine beloved" that Bourgeault describes. (And it's surely not the transcendence of the binary between lover and beloved, between us and God, to which she alludes -- I can't even see there from here.) But I resonate with her suggestion that there can be a "rewriting of the 'operating system'" that can allow one to see "from oneness." That has to be one of the deep purposes of spiritual practice, to rewrite the operating system of the mind and heart.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow makes the point that our received spiritual traditions were largely codified and written down by men who had wives whose job it was to care for the children and the household. They didn't have the experience of trying to enter into a theological text while also listening with one ear to a cartoon, or putting the book down to admire creations built out of plastic bricks. 

But I feel like my work right now is embracing that tension, bringing the theology into the parenting and vice versa, glimpsing the unitive from this place of relationship. Torah instructs me to love God "with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being." Surely one of the ways I fulfill the mitzvah of loving God is through being in relationship with reflections of the Infinite right here.

 


Calling us to Becoming - at Builders Blog

IMG_0038

 

...When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. All of these are gerunds for a reason: they’re our ever-continuing work in the world....

...We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?...

 

That's from this week's Torah post at Builders Blog, co-written by me and my Bayit co-founder Shoshanna Schechter, and sketchnoted by Steve Silbert.

Read the whole thing here: Calling Us To Becoming.

(And if you haven't yet subscribed, please do -- just go to Builders Blog and there's a place to enter your email address in the sidebar so you'll receive posts via email. This year we're sharing a series of weekly Torah commentaries through a building-focused lens, among other things. I hope you'll subscribe; there's really good stuff there, and I'm really glad to be a part of this endeavor.)


Jesus never ate chocolate

Jesus never ate chocolate.
Or tomatoes. Or potatoes.
He never read the tabloids
standing in a checkout line
or listened to tinny muzak
at a dentist's office.

Jesus never watched YouTube
or used glitter glue.
He didn't dance the foxtrot
or even the hora.
He never rode a school bus
or sharpened a No. 2 pencil.

If he were here, he might marvel
at tweets from Lin-Manuel,
at the array of snack foods
in even the most basic 7-11.
But I think he'd be too busy
tenderly cradling the body

of the latest migrant child
to die in government custody,
overturning tables
in the halls of Congress,
searing the earth
with his tears.

 


 

With thanks to the friends who supplied these first two lines, not knowing they were sparking a new poem.


Dark is what brings out our light

Stars-1245902_1920

These are the year's darkest days, in the northern hemisphere where I live. Every day there is a little bit less light. Sundown creeps earlier, and sunrise is later. Every day there is less daylight and more darkness. This isn't metaphor; it's literal.

I've been thinking this week of Robert Frost's poem Choose Something Like A Star. (Randall Thompson wrote a gorgeous choral setting for it, which I was blessed to sing many years ago.) Specifically, the line "Since dark is what brings out your light."

A lot of us (me included) struggle with the short days of winter at this latitude. Visual darkness seems to make everything more difficult. I think of how when I am sick, I often feel worse once night falls. Or how some children struggle with fear at night.

But Robert Frost reminds me of wisdom I keep relearning from my son: dark is what brings out the stars' light. The only reason we can see the light of the stars is that the skies are dark. We see their light because the early night has fallen around us.

When the winter nights feel dark, we can look for the stars. When our emotional lives feel dark, we can look for the stars. This is a delicate balance, because I'm not recommending spiritual bypassing or pretending that our struggles aren't real.

But what is the starlight that can glimmer through the darkness and help us feel less afraid, less alone? What are the stars by which we steer our course, what constellations of love and hope and kindness can help us orient ourselves along the way?

A congregant asked me recently why bad things happen to good people. The only answer I could give was: I have no answer. All we can do is care for one another, and love one another, and be there for one another. It may not feel like much, but it is.

In the rhythm of the year, there is this season of darkness. Some of us struggle through it. But if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we will reach the other side -- that is the promise the calendar and the seasons hold out for us, every year.

In the rhythm of our lives, there are times of darkness. All of us will struggle. All we can do is care for one another, and love one another, and be there for one another. That's the starlight gleaming in the darkness. It may not feel like much, but it is.

 


Who we reveal ourselves to be

Post-4260-0-61624700-1481802031_thumbThis week's Torah portion, Vayigash, brings a dramatic turn in the Joseph story. After a long and twisty series of events -- beginning maybe with Joseph telling the brothers to return to Egypt and bring Benjamin, Rachel's other son, with them; or beginning maybe with the famine that brought the brothers down to Egypt in search of food; or beginning maybe when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery in the first place -- Joseph can't stand to hide from his brothers any more. 

וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, saying "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" They're so dumbfounded they can't answer him. So he repeats himself: I am Joseph, whom you sold into slavery. And then he reassures them: don't be distressed. God sent me here ahead of you in order to save life: to save your lives, to save our father's life, to save the life and the future of our nation. He'll say it even more explicitly later: don't worry. You thought you were doing me ill, but God meant it for good.   

The Hebrew word להתודע is a reflexive verb, meaning "to make oneself known." Joseph isn't just introducing himself -- "Hi, my name is Joseph, nice to meet you." He's making himself known. He's showing them who he really is. He's revealing something core. And what does he reveal? An apparently unshakeable faith and trust. From his current vantage, even the worst events of his life can be redeemed. He can make something good out of them. God can make something good out of them.

If I were to choose from this list of character strengths to describe Joseph, top on my list would be emunah, faith and trust (in this translation, "conviction.") He's strong in gevurah, discipline and will power. He's strong in anavah, humility. (Remember his repeated insistence that it is not he who interprets dreams, but rather God, flowing through him.) He's strong in netzach, perseverance and grit. These are the qualities I see revealed in who his life story has led him to become.

Sometimes life gives us active opportunities to make ourselves known: I feel safe with a trusted friend so I let down my guard and show the tenderest parts of who I am, or I feel the situation at hand demands that I be honest so I make the choice to speak what I truly believe. And sometimes we make ourselves known in subtler ways, maybe without even realizing that we are doing so. We make ourselves known through our actions, our deeds, our words, our tone, our priorities, our choices. 

There's so much that we can't control, including birth, family of origin dynamics, how others treat us, when and whether we struggle with illness, etc. But Joseph's story is a reminder that we can choose what qualities we want to cultivate, both in years of emotional "plenty" and in years of spiritual "famine." The qualities we choose to cultivate reveal who we are. When change or conflict or challenge offers us an opportunity to make ourselves known, who do we want to reveal ourselves to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Comfort

In the familiar weight of the cat
who turns in a circle on my lap, then
curls to gnaw on my belt loops.

In the smoke and salt of almonds
steeped in wasabi and soy, satisfying
and sharp on my tongue.

In the weave of my winter tallit, even
when it slips off my narrow shoulders.
In knotted fringes between my knuckles.

In the words that fly from my fingers
hanging like protective sigils
over your head, around your heart.

 


In dark times...

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of light – which can feel challenging when we are surrounded by so much darkness, both physically (short winter days) and spiritually by the increase of hate and oppression around the world. It’s especially challenging because the light that we each bring is so often separated from one another. Our souls are isolated, so our lights are too. Chanukah teaches us how to overcome that separation by adding light to light.

We each have our own list of the various sources of darkness in our lives, and there are many. Hate crimes are on the rise, bigotry and racism have become increasingly emboldened, we face the daily grind of struggling against more and more oppressive policies at every turn. How can we be real about the darkness without being pollyanna or pretending it doesn’t hurt people, while at the same time cultivating the inner resources we need to bring light?...

 

That's the beginning of a new piece I co-wrote with my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and with Victoria Cook of Torah Trumps Hate, with a beautiful sketchnote from Steve Silbert, published this morning in eJewish Philanthropy. It's about Chanukah, and havdalah, and our #BeALight initiative, and why in dark times it's our job to bring light.

Read the whole thing: In Dark Times, Be A Light


Dedication

31213574017_9562b1cba0_oChanukah means "dedication." As in chanukat bayit, the ritual of blessing and dedicating a new home. Or Chanukat Bayit, the experience of rededicating The House, the home for God's presence on Earth, which was how we understood the Temple in Jerusalem in the days when it stood. Chanukah reminds us of reconsecrating that holy space long ago.

Dedication was on my mind last night as I stood with a crowd of some 40 people around the median across the street from City Hall in North Adams. (A space which I have now learned is named Dr. Arthur Rosenthal Square.) That median is home to a big City Christmas tree, and I have always admired it as I drive past. (I love Christmas lights; they brighten the dark.)

But there was something different about seeing a symbol of my own tradition there too. As of this year, the City of North Adams has a chanukiyah, a menorah for Chanukah. (Technically "menorah" denotes one with three branches on either side of the shamash or helper candle, whereas "chanukiyah" denotes one with four branches on either side, eight candles for the eight days of the holiday.) The City chanukiyah stands proudly beside the City tree, proclaiming that our little city is home to Jews as well as to Christians, and celebrating both of our winter festivals of light.

Chanukah isn't a major holiday in Jewish tradition. Sure, it's a big deal for Jewish children, many of whom receive presents at this season -- though that's clearly a response to the (secular) Christian practice of making Christmas into a gift-giving extravaganza. But our "holiday season" isn't really December, it's the lunar months of Elul and Tishrei (usually September / October on the Gregorian calendar) when we prepare for the Days of Awe and then celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And Chanukah doesn't appear anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures. It's truly a minor festival, in the grand scheme.

But because Christmas is so omnipresent and so visible in the public sphere, it's easy for Jews in the Diaspora to feel extra-invisible at this time of year. I didn't realize how moved I would be to see a visible reminder of Jewishness in the public space of downtown North Adams until I saw the City chanukiyah lit and gleaming beside the bright and gleaming tree. At this season of (re)dedication, when we dedicate our hands and hearts to the work of making the whole world a holy place for divine Presence to dwell, it meant a lot to me to take part in dedicating a new chanukiyah for the City whose inhabitants I'm blessed to serve.

I'm deeply grateful to Mayor Tom Bernard for making this happen, and to the City buildings and grounds crew who did all of the behind-the-scenes work of setting up and installing and wiring the chanukiyah so that we could gather on the first night of Chanukah and together bring a little bit more light into the world. I'm looking forward to driving through town in the coming days, and to seeing the number of lights increase. And I'm grateful for the experience of feeling seen as a religious minority in the place where I live -- and at a season when it's all too easy for Jews to feel like we're on the outside, feeling welcomed instead.

 

Photo by Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle.


Vayeshev: letting our light shine

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.21.46 AMAt the start of this week's parsha, Vayeshev, Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams. In one dream, their sheaves of wheat bow down to his. In another, the stars and the sun and moon (maybe a representation of the siblings and the parents) bow down to him. In both dreams, Joseph's light is shining brightly.

His brothers respond by casting him into a pit and selling him into slavery.

Sit with that for a minute. Does it sound over-the-top? Sure. But I'll bet every one of us here has had an experience of feeling attacked, or cut-down, or cast away, because we were letting our light shine too brightly for someone else's comfort.

Reading this parsha this year, I'm struck by the contrast between the brightness of Joseph's internal light, and the dark pit into which his brothers throw him. Joseph's brothers resent his light. They want to remove him from their family system because they resist and resent his light.

I don't like to think in terms of people manifesting darkness or light -- it's so binary. I want to say that we can or should seek out the spark of goodness even in people who seem to be evil. And yet we all know that darkness is real, and that it can cause harm.

It is the nature of darkness to resist and resent light -- to blame light for shining. But we have to let our light shine.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer, writing on this week's parsha, cites a midrash that says that Jacob is fire and Joseph is flame. And fire and flame are what can burn away the forces of negativity and darkness.

He goes on to say that we each need to kindle our own inner flame. He says we do that with Torah study, and with service (service of God, service of our fellow human beings), and with holiness. Because if we keep our inner fires burning, we can counter our own yetzer ha-ra, our own evil inclination... and we can counter the forces of darkness outside of us, too.

When we enflame ourselves with Torah -- when our hearts are on fire with love of God and love of justice and love of truth -- then our fires will burn brightly no matter who wants to quench our flame. And then even if others respond to our light with negativity, as Joseph's brothers did, we'll have the inner resources to make goodness (or find goodness) even in the times when life feels dark or constricted.

It's our job to keep our inner fires burning and to shine as brightly as we can. That's what Jewish life and practice ask of us. That's what authentic spiritual life asks of us. That's what this season asks of us.

On Sunday night we'll kindle the first candle of Chanukah. We begin that festival with one tiny light in the darkness that surrounds us. But Chanukah comes to remind us that from one light will grow another, and another, and another. And when we let our light shine, we make it safe for others to let their light shine, too.

As the days grow darker, may we enflame our hearts with love of all that is good and holy, ethical and right. And may we be strengthened in our readiness to let our light shine.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)