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.)


Enough, just as we are

EnoughMany of us struggle at this time of year. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter and darker. Even one who doesn't have an official diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder can feel the effects of the season. There's also the dominant culture and its pressure to consume (Black Friday! Cyber Monday! Sales that try to convince us we desperately need things we didn't even know we wanted!)  -- and the dominant culture's pressure to conform to a particular secularist-Christian vision of December, in which we're expected to perform merriness as we overspend to show our love for each other. 

Holiday times are challenging. They offer annual benchmarks: what was life like at Thanksgiving last year? Is it getting better or has it gotten worse? Does my life feel the way I want it to? Are my relationships working the way I want them to? It's easy to give in to the temptation to compare one's life with what one sees on Facebook -- forgetting that for many people, Facebook is a place to show a carefully-curated slideshow of only the best parts of one's life. It's so easy to compare one's own life (with the frustrations, dissatisfactions, and griefs we know intimately and well) with what we imagine everyone else's life to be.

Thank God: here comes Chanukah. Granted, for my nine-year-old Chanukah has a lot to do with LEGOs and board games. For him Chanukah means presents -- and spinning a dreidel, eating chocolate coins, and playing the dreidel song on the piano. But as he grows up, I hope he'll also learn that Chanukah is also about the miracle of enoughness. It's about discovering that what we have -- that what we are -- is enough. It's about light in the darkness, and taking action to make our sacred places holy again... and now that the Temple is no more, it's our job to make the entire world into a holy place filled with the presence of God.

Chanukah is about the leap of faith that says we have the inner spiritual resources to brighten even the darkest moments. Chanukah is about starting with one tiny flame, and cultivating that light so that over time it can grow. Chanukah is about pirsumei nes, publicizing the miracle -- letting our light shine, letting our hope shine, without shame or embarrassment or fear. Chanukah is about affirming that there is a source of light and hope even in the darkest times, and that we too can be a source of light and hope for each other. Chanukah is about (re)discovering that we are enough, exactly as we are.


Light in the darkness

Ark-technology-oil_lamp_open_litEven in times of greatest darkness, when it seems that hope is gone, when you feel tapped-out and drained, when you have no more resources to draw on, when you've done everything you know how to do: don't give up. Do the tiny thing you can do, even if it doesn't feel like enough.

That's the message of the Chanukah story. Not the tale of military victory (which doesn't appear in the Hebrew Scriptures anyway; the books of Maccabees are in some Christian Bibles, but not in ours), but the story of the oil that shouldn't have been enough. The story of the rededication of the Temple, the place where we connected with God. The story of the light that burned in the darkness even after it should have gone out.

The light that burned in the Temple in days of old was supposed to be kept burning all the time. From that comes the custom of the ner tamid, the "eternal light" that burns at the front of every synagogue now. The light (whether oil lamps of old, or today's LED lightbulbs) is meant to remind us of what's truly eternal: God's presence. Our connection with something greater than ourselves. Hope. Love. 

Kindling the eternal light in the Temple when they knew they didn't have enough fuel to keep it burning was arguably foolhardy. But most leaps of faith look that way, until one takes them. And they so yearned to bring light into the world, to rekindle their reminder of divine Presence, that they kindled it anyway... and what shouldn't have been enough, became enough. 

Maybe you're feeling lately like you're not enough. Maybe you're feeling like the world demands strength and perseverance that you can't seem to manage. Maybe you're feeling like the darkness presses in on all sides and will not be defeated. Maybe you're feeling worn-down and hopeless. For personal reasons, or for national reasons, or for global reasons, or all three at once.

Chanukah comes to remind us: don't give up. Don't give in to the voice that says you aren't enough. Do what little you can, even if it doesn't feel like it's enough -- maybe especially if it doesn't feel like it's enough. Make the leap of faith of continuing to try to build a life, a nation, a world that is better than the one we've got now. Start tonight, with one little light -- one tiny flame against the darkness. And tomorrow night there will be two. And the night after that there will be three. 

Of course, it's not really about the candle flames. The literal flames on our chanukiyot are symbols. They remind us of a deeper spiritual truth: that we can bring light. That what we are is enough. That all hope is not lost. That when we can hope for better, we can work for better, and we can take back all of the places that have been desecrated and make them holy once again.

 

Related:

(You can find all of my Chanukah-related posts in the Chanukah category.) 

 


On being enough, the "inner accuser," and letting our light shine

רָנִּ֥י וְשִׂמְחִ֖י בַּת־צִיּ֑וֹן כִּ֧י הִנְנִי־בָ֛א וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֥י בְתוֹכֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְה

"Shout for joy, daughter of Zion! For behold, I come, and I will dwell within you, says Adonai."

That's the first line of the special haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which I chanted many years ago at my bat mitzvah.

I've remembered that opening line all these years. But there's much in this haftarah from Zechariah that I didn't remember. For instance, Zechariah's vision of Joshua, the high priest, standing before God as though on trial, with השטן / ha-satan, "the Accuser," there to accuse him. But God rebukes the accuser, says that Joshua is a "firebrand plucked from the fire," and makes his dirty garments white as snow.

Then an angel wakes Zechariah and asks what he sees. Zechariah describes a vision of a golden menorah, mystically fed by a stream of flowing oil direct from two olive trees. Zechariah asks the angel what this means, and the angel tells him, "'Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone' -- so says the God of Hosts."

The vision of the golden menorah may be why these verses are chanted on Shabbat Chanukah. They evoke the miracle: the oil that should not have been enough to keep the eternal flame kindled, but somehow it was enough. Or maybe the miracle is that our forebears took the leap of faith of lighting the eternal flame in the first place.

These verses evoke, too, our sages' decision centuries ago not to include the story of guerilla warfare in our sacred scripture. The Books of Maccabees, which tell the tale of the insurgency against Antiochus, are not part of the Hebrew Bible. When we tell the story of Chanukah, we tell the story of the miracle -- the oil, and the faith -- not the story of insurgents fighting soldiers. "Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone."

What we have, what we are, is enough -- even at times when we fear we don't have enough to offer. Even when all we have are the tiny sparks of hope we nurture and carry in our own hearts. We read in Proverbs that "The candle of God is the soul of a human being." Our souls are God's candles. It's our job to be the light of the world. So far, so good. But what do I make of that perplexing passage earlier in the haftarah, the vision of Joshua and ha-satan, the Accuser?

This year I read those verses as a parable about internal reality. I know what it's like to hear the words of my inner accuser. That voice tells me that my mis-steps disqualify me from being the person I want to be. Who am I to claim to be a servant of the Most High when my garments are so shabby -- when the life I try to weave is so riddled with mistakes, disappointments, inadequacies? That voice reminds me of all the good I intended to do in the world that I failed to do, the loved ones whose suffering I cannot alleviate, the problems I cannot fix. 

But the Holy One of Blessing sees me otherwise. God sees me through loving eyes. God sees my good intentions, even when I don't live up to them the way I wish I could. God sees my struggles and my griefs not as a sign that I am failing, but as the refining fire that burns away my illusions. God says to my inner accuser: this soul is a burning branch plucked from the fire of human circumstance, and her yearning to do better and be better is what enables her light to shine. God says to my inner accuser: see, I forgive this soul's mis-steps, and I make the garment of her life as white as snow.

Each of us has that inner accuser... and each of us can experience redemption from that voice when we remember that we are seen also through loving eyes. If you believe in a God Who sees you, then those loving eyes are Divine. If you don't believe in that kind of personalized deity, then those eyes may be those of someone in your life... or they may be your own eyes, when you take the leap of faith of seeing yourself the way you wish your dearest beloved could see you. 

In Zechariah's vision, Joshua's garments become white as snow. Just so for all of us. When we do our own inner work to try to be better, our tradition teaches, we are forgiven. And the sorrows of the old year, the stains and smudges on our life's "garment," do not disqualify us from hoping for better in the year to come. On the contrary: it is precisely with awareness of our mistakes and our sorrows that we are called to hope for better -- to kindle the light of hope even when reason would argue otherwise.

Our task is to let our light shine, and to trust in the One Who ensures that what we have, that what we are, is enough to meet whatever comes.

 

This is the d'var haftarah I offered at my shul earlier today, on New Year's Eve Day which is also Shabbat Chanukah which is also my bat-mitzvah-versary. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Chanukah music

MusicA friend asked me recently for suggestions of "good Chanukah music," aside from Peter, Paul & Mary's "Light One Candle" and the Stephen Colbert / Jon Stewart contemporary classic "Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?"

The challenge, of course, is that Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday in the grand scheme of things. There are a few decent Chanukah songs, but this isn't the holiday that has inspired the greats of my tradition to plumb their musical depths.That said, I promised her I'd come up with a list of a few things, and I'm sharing it here in case anyone else has similar needs.

The first thing that comes to mind is Anander Mol, Anander Veig, a compilation of remixes released by Tablet magazine a few years back at Chanukah-time. At that link you can listen to individual tracks or download the whole album.

Bare Naked Ladies put a Chanukah song on their holiday album a while back, which is actually pretty charming.

If you are a fan of a cappella, you might enjoyS ix13's Chanukah (Shake It Off).  On a similar note, there's the Maccabeats' All About That Neis.  And, of course, don't miss this year's release, Hasmonean, a delightful Hamilton medley parody. 

Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, is led by a trio of extraordinarily talented musicians. Here's an excerpt from a concert they put on at a Benedictine monastery in Israel at Chanukah a few years ago, which begins with their performance of "Maoz Tzur" (a.k.a. Rock of Ages.)

The next track that comes to mind is Shir Yaakov's "Or Zarua." It's not a Chanukah song per se, but it is a song about light -- which seems fitting to me for these dark days as the winter solstice recedes. 

Shir Yaakov is part of Darshan. Their album Deeper and Higher is terrific. I'm especially fond of the track "Before Darkness," which remixes the "Or Zarua" I linked to above. My other favorite track on that album is probably "For the Sake of Unification." Now we've moved firmly out of the realm of Chanukah music and into the realm of "good Jewish music to which one could listen at Chanukah (or any time)."

Another fun one to put in a holiday playlist -- again, not a Chanukah song, but one that makes me smile -- is this version of "Adon Olam" sung to the tune of Pharrell Williams' "Happy." (My other favorite setting of Adon Olam these days is this one by Cantor Azi Schwarz, to the tune of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton.)

If you have recommendations of Chanukah music that works for you, feel free to leave them in comments!


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

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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)

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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.

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