A few Chanukah gems

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

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

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

Image source: my flickr stream.

Excavating the Herodian oil lamps


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

This week's portion: on abundance and dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

December Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

All responses welcome, as always.

Another poem for Chanukah

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sufganiyot in the Saturday Poetry Series

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

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

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

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

A new poem for Chanukah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two reprints for these darkening December / Kislev days

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

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

-- A call for kindness during Kislev, 2011

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

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

-- Enough, 2007

Winter blessings to a medieval carol tune

Several years ago, Ethan and I saw Richard Thompson and his merry band (the acoustic version thereof) perform a 1000 Years of Popular Music show at the Iron Horse. One of my favorite tracks from that night was a medieval Scots carol called "Remember O Thou Man," often attributed to Thomas Ravenscroft, though Ravenscroft may only have collected or updated it -- some suggest it predates him, too.

Richard told us that night that this melody is often considered to be the source of what we now know as God Save the Queen, though this carol is in a minor key whereas that anthem is in a major one. (The footnotes to that Wikipedia entry on "God Save the Queen" confirm that this is a popular theory, though no one seems to be able to prove it one way or another.)

Anyway, the melody stuck with me. I love it. Here, watch Richard and two friends play "Remember O Thou Man" in the back of a English taxicab:

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)

I associate this melody with the darkening days of deep autumn turning toward winter. Maybe because I first heard it in early November. Maybe because the original lyrics have a kind of wintery darkness to them -- "Remember, o thou man, thy time is spent..."

It ocurred to me, one cold and rainy day earlier this fall, that I might see if this melody works for any of the blessings of my winter season. (This isn't my first experiment with setting Hebrew words to Richard Thompson's melodies -- see A Richard Thompson Modah Ani.) So I tried putting the Chanukah candle blessing to this tune. You have to slightly rush a few of the words, but it works reasonably well:




I tried, also, setting the Shehecheyanu -- the blessing sanctifying time, which is recited on the first night of Chanukah -- to this melody, and it worked perfectly. (No elision or rushing necessary.) So maybe this melody works better for the Shehecheyanu than it does for Chanukah candles. Here it is:




I'm not sure how actually useful this is -- what are the odds that anyone reading this will want to sing either the Chanukah blessings, or the shehecheyanu, to a medieval Scots melody? -- but I figured I'd share, just for kicks. Chanukah is approaching (we light the first candle on the night of December 8), so the timing seemed appropriate. Enjoy!


Celebrating daughters on the 7th night of Chanukah

In North African countries, the seventh night of Chanukah (1st of Tevet) was set aside as Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. Mothers would give their daughters gifts, and bridegrooms would give gifts to their brides. Girls who were fighting were expected to reconcile on Chag haBanot. Old women and young women would come together to dance. Another tradition was for women to go to the synagogue, touch the Torah, and pray for the health of their daughters. There might also be a feast in honor of Judith. There was also a custom of passing down inheritances on Chag haBanot. Chag haBanot recognizes that 1 Tevet is a time of receiving the gift of light, and of drawing generations together to honor the birth of spirit within us.

That's from Rabbi Jill Hammer's teachings on Tevet at Tel Shemesh; she also offers a page called Festival of the Daughters, and a Chanukah ritual for the Seventh Night.

I love the idea of celebrating daughters, celebrating girls and women, on the seventh night of Chanukah -- the new moon of Tevet, when the moon begins to wax again, just as (here in the northern hemisphere) the sun's presence in our lives has just begun to increase again.

Even if you aren't interested in a whole celebratory ritual (like the one Reb Jill offers), how might you bless the women in your life as you light tonight's seven candles of Chanukah?

One candle in the dark

Three menorahs, one candle each

Our three chanukiyot.

Today is the first day of Chanukah. Reb Jeff has a beautiful post on The Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah, about the leap of faith involved in having hope.

It's also the winter solstice, or something very near to it -- the shortest day of the year (and the longest night) here in the northern hemisphere. The ritual of lighting one more candle each night is an act of bringing more light into the world -- the light, of course, being both literal and metaphorical. It feels as though, in creating what light we can, we're affirming our part in healing the world, and trusting God to do the same.

May we all be blessed with the ability to hope, and with light in the darkness.

Chanukah remixed

Last year around this time, Tablet magazine put out Anander Mol, Anander Veig / Another Time, Another Way, an online album (free for download) of remixes in celebration of Chanukah. Marc Weidenbaum writes:

They are a people, albeit a diverse and dispersed one, spread throughout the world, separated by geography and language, yet still connected through a rich and shared cultural lineage.

I'm speaking, of course, about remixers.

Remixers are electronic musicians who take a pre-existing piece of recorded music and turn it into something else, sometimes something else entirely. They delight in finding choice moments in the original and rearranging what was there until it resembles the source material yet feels wholly new, wholly its own.

As Hanukkah approached this year, I sent a note to various remixers, asking if they’d be interested in selecting a holiday staple, or a song from another festive Jewish event, and taking a stab at remixing it. The response was swift, strong, and positive—as was the supportive response from the musicians and bands who had recorded the originals from which the remixers would subsequently work.

I'm a big fan of remix (it's a form of transformative work which often works well for me), so I thought this was pretty neat. You can listen to the entire album track by track, or download individual tracks or the whole album in one go, at Tablet magazine. Chag sameach / happy holiday to you!

Reb Zalman on Chanukah, the third Temple, and God's broadcast

We're in the month of Kislev, which contains the festival of Chanukah. I recently received in my inbox A Mystical Message about Chanukah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi -- sent courtesy of Tikkun. (That teaching can also be found at Tikkun, titled This Is About Hanukkah.) Here's how it begins:

Several times the Bible tells us that God wants to have a place "to make His name dwell therein." It's interesting that it says not that 'I will dwell there' but that my Name will dwell there. While everything is God, in God, the whole cosmos is not separate from God, the point that a Temple makes is, there is a concentrated, stronger focus of the quality of divinity for those who enter there. So while it is true that God is in everything there is, everything that is broadcasts its own quality, a Temple was a broadcasting tower from which a signal went out to the world...

In each human being there is a receiver for that broadcast –– because divine compassion broadcasts on human wavelengths. People who are open to God and want to be open to receive that beacon can in this way recalibrate their moral and ethical life.

Although the First and the Second Temples were destroyed, the teaching says that the Third Temple is already present on a higher and more subtle vibratory scale. The broadcast comes even now from that Temple and is received by some people and –– alas –– not by others. The beacon to us human beings also invites us to contribute to that broadcast, and in the way in which we invest energy we boost the signal strength in public worship and in private prayer, in meditation and then acts of justice and compassion. We beam these back to the source of the broadcast which we call the Name of God.

Reb Zalman goes on to offer a teaching about how the Second Temple's broadcast was denatured and damaged by its invasion and desecration, and how the miracle of the oil arose because the people were so desperate to begin receiving the blessing of divine transmission again that they lit the holy lamps even without enough oil. The yearning for relationship with God led to the miracle, or maybe to awareness of the miracle.

I've heard Reb Zalman teach before on the notion that God broadcasts on all wavelengths, and that we receive that broadcast depending on how and where we're "tuned in." But the idea that the Third Temple is not a physical structure (as were its two predecessors), but a kind of subtle vibration, a stream of blessing coming from God which is received by those who are attuned to the signal -- that's new to me. And I like the idea that through our prayer and meditation (both private and communal), and in our acts of justice and compassion, we strengthen the signal of God's broadcast.

This teaching might change the way I relate to Chanukah. It's easy for me to connect with the notion of light in a time of darkness, and with the sense that miracles can arise when we have faith in the redemption which I think the sanctified oil represents -- but because I've never related to God through the practice of Temple sacrifice, it's easy to feel a bit removed from the wonder of reconsecrating the Temple structure to divine purpose.

But if the Temple served as a kind of spiritual broadcast beacon, and that same broadcast is still flowing forth from God on the "higher and more subtle vibratory scale" which Reb Zalman describes, then Chanukah becomes a time to celebrate the story of how we once cleaned up our broadcast tower so that awareness of divine compassion could flow into creation again. And maybe it's also a time for rededicating ourselves to the work of receiving God's transmission, recalibrating our moral and ethical and spiritual lives, so that we reconsecrate the Third Temple which exists in spirit and metaphor though not in stone. Chanukah becomes a time for discerning the inner work we need to do so that we can open our own spiritual channels and "hear" God's presence more wholly.

A call for kindness during Kislev

In Judaism, the big fall "holiday season" is the month of Elul leading up to the Days of Awe, then Sukkot and the cluster of festivals which come at its close. In mainstream American culture, the big fall "holiday season" is the shopping season which begins with great fanfare on the day after Thanksgiving and culminates at Christmas.

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.

Over Thanksgiving weekend we entered a new month on the Jewish calendar, the lunar month of Kislev which will hold within it this year both Chanukah (which is always on the 25th of Kislev) and Christmas (which is always on the 25th of December -- except in those Christian traditions where it is on January 6 or 7 -- but regardless, it doesn't always fall during this lunar month; this year 12/25 will.) Chanukah and Christmas too offer opportunities for gathering and togetherness as well as loneliness and alienation, for celebration as well as sorrow.

For some Jews, the approach of Christmas is an enjoyable opportunity to respectfully appreciate someone else's religious traditions. For others among us, it awakens childhood memories of feeling "Other," or of yearning for the glitz and sparkle the Christian kids got to enjoy but feeling guilty for that yearning. For some of us who were reared Christian but have chosen Judaism, this month raises anxiety about how much it's "okay" to still enjoy old family traditions. For some of us who were reared Jewish but have chosen Christian spouses, the season can raise similar fears and tensions.

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 body, which is your oldest and dearest companion, and be gentle to it. For me that means getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, the ritual of my little iron teapot; it means making sure I'm eating vegetables, and it also means giving myself permission to enjoy holiday sweets.

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. You deserve the same attention and comfort as any beloved animal or child. GIve yourself permission to feel whatever you're feeling.

Pay attention to your social barometer. For some of us, the approach of winter's dark and cold days brings out a yearning for people, for gathering and hosting and feasting. For others, this same moment in the year wakens the desire to curl up in comfortable solitude with a book and a glass of wine or favorite episodes of a familiar tv show. (For me, both of these things are true at once! This is why I always test as both an introvert and an extrovert when I've taken the Myers-Briggs type indicator test.) Wherever you fall on that spectrum, notice it, and make the decisions which will cradle and support you.

Try not to get caught up in expectations. "What if he doesn't like his gift?" "What if I'm not spending enough?" "What if I'm spending too much?" Oy -- it's enough to tangle one's emotional and spiritual life into knots (not to mention one's neck and back muscles.) Tell yourself that whatever you bring: to the potluck, to the Chanukah or Christmas party, to your friends and family -- whatever you bring is enough. You are enough. Not just this month, but the whole year long.

Brokenness and hope: in this week's Torah portion and in our lives

This week we're in parashat Miketz, continuing the Joseph story. I want to share a couple of beautiful teachings which I learned from the writings of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, may his memory be a blessing. (This teaching can be found in his Meta-parshiot commentary from 5757.) Genesis 42:1 reads: וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו, לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ. / -- "Now Jacob saw that there were rations in Egypt..."

The word translated here as "rations" (some translations say "corn") is שבר. With the dot on the upper-right of the ש, the word is shever, "rations." (R' Wolfe-Blank explains that the word "rations" means "distribution of food" -- in that sense it speaks to a kind of brokenness, e.g. a small quantity of food broken into many pieces.) It's also a homonym for another word (pronounced the same way) which means "destruction." But with the dot on the upper-left of the ש, the word is sever, "hope." Since the Torah scroll is written without dots or diacritical markings, one can creatively misread the word so that what Jacob is finding in Egypt is hope. (Though our tradition holds that the word is indeed shever, reading it creatively as sever is a classical midrashic technique for drawing new meaning out of the same letters.)

"Jacob saw that there was שבר in Egypt."

There was shever [brokenness] - that is the famine;
there was sever [hope] - that is the plenty.

There was shever [brokenness] - "Joseph was taken down to Egypt;"
there was sever [hope] - "Joseph became the ruler." (42:6)

There was shever [brokenness] - "They shall enslave and afflict them;"
there was sever [hope] - "In the end they shall go free with great wealth." (15:14)

(-- Bereshit Rabbah 25:1, quoted in The Beginning of Desire, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, p. 301.)

Jacob, writes R' Wolfe-Blank, is having a simultaneous vision of hope and of brokenness. He sees that in Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will be made into slaves -- and yet he sees that in emerging from Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will become a great nation. "Without a crisis, without 'going down to Egypt,' hope cannot arise."

This is the message of the Joseph story writ large: sometimes descent is necessary in order for ascent to be possible. Joseph had to be thrown into a pit in order to be rescued; had to be sold into slavery in order to rise up in Egypt; had to be thrown in Pharaoh's prison in order to be in a position to interpret Pharaoh's dream and achieve the power which would enable him to save the lives of all Egypt and of his own home community as well.

And in our lives, too. Sometimes you have to go through something hard in order to be able to get to something sweet. A woman at the end of pregnancy has to endure labor and birth before her child can be born. New parents have to endure weeks of sleeplessness and exhaustion before their child even learns to smile. Relationships go through tough times, and the only way out is through -- but if you trust that something better is coming on the other side, then the dark moments become bearable, because they're the path toward new light.

"This is reflected in the lights of Hanuka," writes R' Wolfe-Blank, "where we live through the darkest part of the year and light the wicks of hopefulness." As we light our Chanukkah candles tonight, may we be blessed with a vision which transforms any brokenness in our present lives into the wholeness which is coming. Chag urim sameach (a joyous festival of lights) and Shabbat shalom!

Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within

In 2009 I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which looked at the round of the spiritual year through the lens of Hasidic texts. It is one of my favorite classes I've taken during this whole rabbinic school adventure. (Here's the series of three posts I made at the end of that class: The shape of the spiritual year, The year as spiritual practice, Hasidut and paradigm shifting.)

The group met once after our formal learning was over, during Chanukah, in order to study Hasidic texts about Chanukah. I wasn't able to make the class -- Drew was only a few weeks old -- but I downloaded the recording, and listened to part of it late one night as Drew nursed. But I didn't have the Hasidic texts in front of me, and it was hard for me to internalize the learning without the printed material to look at. Also I was exhausted and overwhelmed and it was the middle of the night! So I saved the mp3 for another day.

Chanukah approaches again, which makes this the perfect time to listen to this recording and take in some wisdom from the Hasidic masters, from my classmates, and from my dear teacher R' Elliot Ginsburg. Here are some gleanings from the first part of that extra class, taught around this time on the Jewish calendar last year. This text comes from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

"The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the Gemara we read about searching for leaven with a candle -- about searching our internal places as though we were searching the deepest cavities of our bodies.

(He's suggesting that there's a connection between our Chanukah candles, and the candle which we use to search for leaven before Pesach, and this idea that our souls are divine candles.)

The mishkan (sanctuary / dwelling-place for God) and the beit hamikdash (the Holy Temple) dwell in the hearts of every person in Israel. This is the meaning of the verse "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8) -- e.g., within the hearts of the people. When one understands that one's life-force is in one's soul, one is doing a kind of personal refinement or spiritual clarification. Every day when we say elohai neshama [in the daily liturgy, we recite "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure"] we're doing that spiritual work. There is a single point of purity in each person of Israel -- though this point is hidden, secreted away. But in the days when the Temple stood, it was revealed and known that our life-force was in/from God.

Once upon a time, there was an externalization of divinity. God's presence in the world was manifest through the Temple, which helped us recognize that God was the source of all life. Today, when that architecture no longer stands, the reality that we burn with divine life-force is hidden to us, and needs to be revealed through doing internal spiritual work.

Now that the mishkan is hidden, divinity can nevertheless be found by searching with candles [as we do on the night before Pesach, and as we do when we kindle festival lights.]

In other words: even without the Temple, divinity can still be found. We just have to search for it. And there may be something about the act of kindling lights which helps us do that internal seeking.

The candles [which we use in our spiritual seeking] are the mitzvot. We search for God by doing mitzvot. The way that we search, with all of our hearts, is to perform the mitzvot with all of our heart, soul, life-force.

We can see the mitzvot as tools of searching. He's not just talking about literal candles and the lighting thereof; he's talking about how each time we do mitzvot, we are kindling a kind of light. Through the mitzvot, we go inward. When we do mitzvot, they act as candles, illumining us. This is not how we usually think about mitzvot, but it may have extra resonance for us this week as we literally illumine the lights of Chanukah.

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