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November 2018

Dark is what brings out our light

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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.)