Chanukah poem for Drew

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, after services were over, two of my friends threw a Blessingway for me. That afternoon I received letters, blessings, beads, stories, and poems from friends. (All of the blessings for me, and for Ethan, are preserved in the Blessingway section of Drew's website.)

One such poem came from Kate Abbott of Spring Farm Almanac. She wrote a beautiful sestina about our first Chanukah with Drew, which I repost here with permission. (If you like it, be sure to visit her post and leave a comment to let her know.) Thank you so much, Kate.

A wish for your son's first nights

When you sit, all three wrapped in blankets,
in the early dark, blue on the shoulders
of the hills, letting pillows hold your heads,
and listen to the bubble of his breathing,
let the quiet instill warmth, in the new way
tinder and cardboard on the hearth kindle.

Your husband brings in wood. You light the candles,
sing she’hecheyanu and tuck in blankets.
While the candles burn, you may sit this way,
one head against your thigh, one on your shoulder,
and hum with the resonance of their breathing,
your hand on his head, your head against his head.

Continue reading "Chanukah poem for Drew" »

Chanukah miscellany

Here are five Chanukah-themed gems from my delicious feed:

That last one probably only appeals to the limited subset of people who recite Hallel regularly enough to know it well, and who know and like a bunch of Christmas carols, but since I'm smack in the middle of that demographic, it's perfect for me.

(For a more serious take on Chanukah, I'm pretty happy with yesterday's Mai Chanukah; if you haven't read it yet, I hope you will.)

On a completely unrelated note:

The folks at invited me to contribute a list of my top ten religion blogs to their topten section. I chose ten blogs which are among my regular reads; I think it's an eclectic list and hopefully an interesting one! The list is here: Velveteen Rabbi's Top Ten Religion Blogs.

If yours is one of the blogs I listed, you're entitled to one of these badges, by the way. Thanks for putting your words out there! And thanks for the invite, folks.

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Mai Chanukah?

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.

There are of course many ways to tell the Chanukah story and the ways we do are not unrelated to who we are. Every community and generation interprets Chanukah in its own image. For us there are a number of obvious contenders. For American Jews it is most often about religious freedom from tyrants. For Israelis it is about routing the armies of a dominating empire and winning back Jewish sovereignty. For traditional Jews it is about a fight against assimilation. Hasidic Jews take another path and read the story allegorically as a story about seeking one's inner life and rededicating oneself to that small burning candle. Indeed, every generation asks what the Rabbis ask when they open their short conversation on the holiday... "Mai Chanukah?" -- What is Chanukah?

(So writes Rabbi Steve Greenberg in a d'var Torah which is available online here.)

So what's the story with Chanukah? One answer can be found in scripture -- though not mine. The apocryphal books of Maccabees (written in Greek) tell the story of the Hasmonean dynasty. (These books are considered part of the Catholic Bible, though not the Protestant Bible or Jewish Tanakh.) Anyway: those books tell the story of the wicked Antiochus IV who looted the Temple, alongside the story of the Israelites who assimilated to Greek ways and the other Israelites who slaughtered them. Matthias and his family destroyed illicit altars and forcibly circumcised babies; his oldest son Judah led the rebels to victory.

Continue reading "Mai Chanukah?" »

Here, have some Chanukah cheer.

This one comes courtesy of my father, who described it as a truly Texan Chanukah celebration. Gay cowboys singing the dreidl song; what will we think of next? I do love the internet sometimes. (Often, in fact.)

(The cowboys in question go by the name of Captain Smartypants; they're an ensemble of the Seattle Men's Chorus. So, not Texan in actuality, but very Texan in spirit. In my humble diaspora Texan opinion.) Happy Chanukah to all!

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Lighting one candle on the longest night

Today is the December solstice: the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. (A fine day to keep the home fires burning; and, indeed, we are doing just that! Ethan's chopping wood even now.) And today at sundown we'll celebrate the first night of Chanukah -- chag urim, the holiday of lights.

On the first night of Chanukah, the flame of the single festival light (and the single shamash or helper candle) can feel tiny -- maybe especially tonight, against the weight of all that darkness. The solstice and Chanukah always feel congruent to me but it's rare for the festival to begin on the solstice itself. Night falls early in the Berkshires at this time of year. The longest night is long indeed.

It always takes a leap of faith to choose to kindle light in a time of darkness, to trust that our small flames can actually make a difference in the great cold world. But they can, and they do. Lighting the first candle of Chanukah is a chance to affirm our ability to bring light into the world.

As we kindle the holiday lights tonight, may we rededicate ourselves (as our stories tell us the temple was once rededicated at this season) to the work of creating light. Even, or especially, on the longest, darkest night of the calendar year.


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Farewell to Chanukah

There's always something a little bit melancholy about putting away the menorah at the end of Chanukah. Once upon a time it made me sad because it meant the end to the stream of presents; these days it makes me sad because over the week of the festival I've grown attached to kindling lights every night, and I'm sorry to see the festival go. Often holidays leave me feeling anticlimactic upon their ending -- "you mean that's it?" My challenge is to let that feeling be, instead of immediately papering it over so I don't have to feel it for long.

This year Chanukah was more interesting to me than it's been in a long time. Maybe because two of my classes this fall involve immersion in Hasidic texts, and the worlds of kabbalah and Hasidut are chock-full of light imagery. Torah tells us that the first thing created, at the beginning of spacetime, was light. Light represents wisdom and insight, illumination mental and spiritual as well as practical. Living as I do where night falls early at this season, this festival of en-light-enment resonates more for me every year. Chanukah offers us a chance to bring or ganuz (hidden light) into creation.

And now it's over. I've changed my chat message in gmail chat to "busy as usual," instead of the "Happy Chanukah!" it's read all week. The chanukiyah is back in the sideboard where it resides all the other weeks of the year. The two small silver dreidls I picked up in Jerusalem a decade ago are back on their shelf.

But there's a fire burning merrily in our fireplace, and a leg of lamb roasting in the oven. Home and hearth are warm and inviting, even without the tiny flames of the Chanukah lights. It's time to move on now to the next thing: the waxing moon of Tevet, papers to write and books to read as the secular calendar year begins to wind inexorably down. Chanukah is over. It's time for what comes next.

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I think a lot about sufficiency. What does it mean to have "enough"? I don't mean this as a question about consumerism, though obviously it's that too, especially in the United States during the Advent season that's gotten repackaged as shopping season. I mean it as an internal question, an emotional question.

Because the 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.

And, on the other side of the coin, the sense of having enough can be a pearl beyond price. (As it is written in Pirkei Avot 4:1, "Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.") It's simple, but it isn't easy.

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. That's a miracle that speaks directly to my heart: not in terms of physical resources, though the holiday can be read in those ways too, but in terms of emotional and spiritual resources.

The Chanukah story is really about trusting that there will be enough. That what we have is enough. That what we are is enough.

Damn right that's a miracle.

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Looking for light

I never really understood Christmas lights until I moved to New England.

I'm not talking about the houses so covered in zillions of tiny bulbs that they can probably be seen from space. That kind of lighting may be remarkable, but it doesn't move me -- and it also doesn't seem to exist out here where I live. I'm talking about simple lights, prosaic lights. Lights twined around trees. Illuminated icicles along the eaves of rural houses and barns. Strings of light limning fences on back roads in the middle of nowhere. I never understood lights like that until I moved to a place where complete darkness can fall by 5pm.

Jewish time is closely tied to the cycle of the seasons: the phase of the moon, the angle of the sun. In summertime, it makes sense to daven shacharit (morning prayers) as soon as I can roust myself out of bed; the sun rises around 5am, after all. By the same token, evening prayers fall late in the day; in high summer, it's light until at least nine.

Not now. These days, where I live, the sun rises after seven, and sets during the afternoon. Hebrew school begins in the twilight, and when it ends the world is pitch-black. There's a lot of darkness here at this time of year, and that's changed my relationship with Christmas lights in a pretty fundamental way.

I'm especially fond of the houses where a single candle is lit in every window, which turns out to be a Scottish yuletide custom, meant to light the way for wayfarers -- or, depending on who you ask, for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Maybe that practice resonates because Jews place our chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) in the windows of our homes, so that the lights we kindle can be seen by all who pass. The prayer Hanerot Hallalu (recited after candle-lighting) is a reminder that we kindle the Chanukah lights solely for their beauty and their mnemonic power, not because we plan to use them for any other purpose. We don't light them to read by, or to play dreidl by. We light them in order to see them, remember, and feel gratitude and awe. They're just there to give light.

Obviously Chanukah lights and yule candles have a religious resonance that purely decorative lights don't and can't lay claim to. But the two kinds of light in the darkness feel kin to me in some way, and both make me happy. The religious ones because of the stories they evoke; the secular ones because they're proof that someone out there cares enough about spreading light to take the time to string the cords, replace the bulbs, and illuminate the darkness. They're a gift for everyone who passes by. Sometimes, especially late at night when snow's coming down, they light my way home.

And when I drive our dark winter roads during the week of Chanukah, the remembered lights of my chanukiyah gleaming in my mind's eye, the lights on trees and barns and houses feel like they're twinkling in celebration right along with me. The illuminated snowflakes that line Water Street in Williamstown have six points, in fact, which means if I squint they're almost stars of David. It's all in the eye of the beholder, of course, but at this time of year I'm inclined to find light, on all levels, everywhere I can.

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Crazy eights

On the ALEPH-Pnai-Or email list, someone recently put out a request for Chanukah teachings, and my teacher Reb Arthur Waskow offered a teaching I want to excerpt and riff on here. He wrote:

I think that one is to see the leap from one day's oil to eight days' light as a teaching that we leap from Unity to Infinity. ("Eight" is the number of Beyond.) That if we take ONE seriously, plunge deeply into The One, we find ourselves in the Infinite.

"'Eight' is the number of Beyond." This is a gorgeous insight. Let me try to unpack it for those who aren't immediately going "aha!"

The paradigmatic number in Torah is seven. The Torah begins with a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters (divisible by 7.) Seven days of creation; seven weeks of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, which are mapped to the seven lower sefirot (divine attributes or qualities in which we too partake.) The original menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum, lit in the tabernacle and later in the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem (and echoed in many contemporary synagogues worldwide.)

Kabbalah teaches that seven represents completeness, a single perfect cycle. Six days of work followed by Shabbat, six years of work followed by a sabbatical year, and so on. And the sevens just keep going: seven blessings recited in a Jewish wedding, the Torah speaks of seven Noachide laws that pertain to all humanity, Jewish mysticism describes seven layers or levels of heaven, in Pharaoh's dream there were seven cows and seven stalks of grain, Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, the world contains seven continents and seven seas, on Simchat Torah we dance in seven circles. (Hat tip to this Ask the Rabbi column, from whence many of these references were drawn.)

And yet Chanukah lasts for eight days. If seven represents a round week in its wholeness -- the range of divine qualities that streamed into creation during those six paradigmatic days followed by the first paradigmatic Shabbat -- eight is all that and then some. Eight goes beyond. And, of course, in the system of numerals most of us today use, the number eight matches the symbol for infinity turned on its side.

When we make the metaphysical shift from seven to eight, from one whole week to and-then-some, we transcend our ordinary systems and enter into the Infinite. That's one of the things Chanukah can be about. Cool, eh? חנוכה סמח / Happy Chanukah!

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One small flame

We have good friends who throw a Solstice party each year. (I've mentioned it here before.) On the longest night of the year we gather to eat tasty foods and drink hot mulled wine in a room festooned with evergreen boughs and as many lit candles as our hosts can find. The candles are a beautiful visual representation of what the party's celebrating -- light in a time of darkness.

We're gathering friends at our house tonight for the first night of Chanukah. We'll make a mess of latkes (the classic potato ones, with apple sauce and sour cream) and, of course, light the chanukiyah. Like the candles our friends light on the solstice, the lights of Chanukah represent light in a time of darkness: the metaphorical light of hope burning bright in a time of fear and sorrow, against all odds sustaining us.

The Talmud records a debate about how to kindle the holiday lights. (This article is excellent if you want to learn more.) The school of Shammai favored starting with eight lights, and decreasing the number each night; that way, the number of lights kindled on each night would correspond to the number of days remaining in the miracle of the oil. The school of Hillel favored starting with one and increasing until we reach eight, and in this -- as in so many things -- Jewish tradition follows the teachings of Hillel. Lighting one more candle each night allows us to tap into our sense of the miraculous. As we increase physical light in the world, so too can we increase spiritual and metaphysical light in our lives.

Lighting one solitary candle can feel insufficient, insubstantial. (Especially when one lights ordinary thin Chanukah candles. The huge mahogany chanukiyah that my brother made when I became bat mitzvah holds 12" tapers, but I don't have a chanukiyah like that. Our menorah is beautiful, but it's small.) Everyone gathers 'round -- the match is struck, the shamash (helper candle) is lit -- the blessings are sung, and the one light kindled -- and then it burns there, small and brave, until that one wee candle is gone. There's something poignant about it. The miracle we're hoping to connect with is only barely present.

But barely present is enough. It's something to hold on to. It's a start. Even if it only lasts for a little while, there's a little more light in the world. In our day, the work of creating light is in our hands.

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I read Textual Arachne's post about the approaching solstice last night before lighting Chanukah candles. Perhaps as a result, as the candles gleamed before me I found myself thinking about the fourth night of Chanukah as a hinge.

We're midway through the holiday. Hovering at the midpoint between least light and most. If the arc of the holiday takes us from a kind of dark midwinter to a kind of midsummer blaze, then the fourth night of Chanukah is like the equinox, the point in the middle where, for a moment, everything balances.

It's an illusion. We are always in motion. There's no such thing as stasis, not for living beings for whom life is always in flux.

But now, on this cusp -- in the middle of Chanukah, the scale about to tip toward abundance of light; at the turn of the solar year, that balance on the verge of shifting, like a dancer moving gracefully from one foot to the next -- it feels like we are really pausing. Like we could hover indefinitely before the wheel keeps turning, before the next instant comes.

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Light one candle

Tonight the winter holidays begin! This year the lunar and solar calendars overlap in such a way that the winter solstice will fall during Chanukah, which I think is pretty neat. I'm keenly aware of long night at this point in the year, and take great satisfaction in knowing that tonight, I'll get to light the first candle against the backdrop of all that darkness.

The physical increase of light over the next eight nights has an emotional impact on me. I love watching the chanukiyah cast its small light -- and then two small lights -- and then three...! I love how small the observance is, too. A small celebration for a small holiday in the time of year when maybe we're feeling most small. Chanukah doesn't ask us to do anything grand or overwhelming -- just to light a candle. And then another. One little step at a time.

Of course, there's an emotional increase of light that arises through this festival, too. As the little flames on our chanukiyot add up eventually to a blaze of brightness, so the little flames we kindle in our hearts these eight days can add up to a bonfire of holiness, and awareness of God, and joy. Just as our ancestors rekindled the ner tamid, the Eternal Light, in the Temple in days of old, so can we rekindle our own sense of connection with eternal light in our neshamot, our souls and hearts.

With every spin of the dreidel, we are reminded that nes gadol haya sham, "a great miracle happened there." In our celebrations, may we be mindful of the great miracles that happen right here, wherever we are, no matter what the outward circumstances of our lives may be.

I wish all who celebrate Chanukah a joyous personal rededication, a meaningful celebration of the festival of lights, and a renewed sense of the miraculous in our lives. Chag sameach!

[Yes, I know it's customary to light the first candle on the right, not on the left. I still like this picture, taken at the home of my two sisters-in-law last year.]

New on VR: a Chanukah category. All of my Chanukah posts from '03-'06 are now tagged as such, and can easily be found in a batch together. Enjoy!

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Latkes in the Globe!

Ethan's Asian latke recipe -- along with a lovely article by Clara Silverstein about yours truly, blogger/rabbinic student/chef -- is in the Boston Globe today, as promised! Here's how it starts:

As a rabbinic student, Rachel Barenblat frequently interprets sacred texts to see how they might apply to the contemporary world. When these spiritual explorations lead to the kitchen, it's all in keeping with tradition, says Barenblat, whose popular blog -- Velveteen Rabbi, which receives about 200 hits a day -- chronicles her musings.

"Recipes are like sacred texts passed down on yellowed index cards," says Barenblat, 31, who believes that the study of scripture has a lot in common with cooking. "I love the old classic recipes that I grew up with," she says, "but I like to see how they change if you add something new."

Read the whole thing here: A new take on latkes. (The recipe is here.) B'teavon -- bon appetit!

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An early taste

The email posed two questions: did I have any interesting Chanukah recipes to share (aside from the twin traditions of Ashkenazic latkes/potato pancakes and Sefardic sufganiyot/jelly doughnuts), and did I live in or near the Boston area? Regretfully, I replied "not really" and "not really."

But the Globe wouldn't take no for an answer. Apparently the food editor was intrigued by the notion of a blogging rabbinic student, and had been told that I was a good source for interesting Jewish recipes (maybe thanks to my posts about pumpkin challah and etrog preserves?) The writer of the piece didn't mind coming to Lanesboro to get the story. Could I come up with any food ideas worth sharing?

So I asked Ethan to commit to paper a recipe for Asian Latkes he invented some years ago, featuring sweet potatoes, red cabbage, and black sesame seeds. We made a test batch over the weekend to be sure we had the quantities and techniques straight. And today, I had the surreal experience of cooking the latkes for an audience which included a camera going click-click-click in my kitchen!

I had a lovely visit with freelance writer Clara Silverstein -- like me, a Jew born and reared in the south. (She's the author of two forthcoming cookbooks; also of White Girl: a Story of School Desegregation, an excerpt from which is available online here.) As I grated and sliced and mixed, we talked about my Chanukah plans (we usually have friends over for latkes and candle-lighting), rabbinic school, poetry, and, of course, this blog.

I had fun spinning the culinary Torah metaphor (which I first referenced in this post) during our conversation. I talked about how Torah is our central ingredient, but each of us who engages with it brings our own repertoire of tastes, spices, and techniques to the experience, and as a result it's a text with many flavors. It's a deliciously democratic metaphor, too: the professionals make beautiful food, but cooking (and text study) isn't theirs alone. It was somewhat tangential to the interview, so may not be part of the final article, but it was a neat conversation.

Anyway, it was a fascinating way to spend part of my Monday! I've given some thought, at various times, to how I might get a piece into the Globe -- but I confess I never imagined it would be through offering a recipe to the Food section...


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More on Chanukah

Chanukah has two stories: one about a military victory, the other about a flagon of sanctified oil that miraculously burned for eight days. I love the second story: it's ripe for contemporary interpretation, and its message is appealingly universalizable. Rededication of holy places! Light in the darkness! That stuff is right up my alley. But the more I learn about the first story, the war story, the queasier it makes me. I've been trying for days to articulate my mixed feelings about the Chanukah stories, and to figure out how I want to relate to this complicated narrative yin-yang.

The story of the Hasmonean revolt as chronicled in Maccabees is challenging for me. It's a lot messier and less pleasant than the sanitized version I learned as a kid. When people brandish that narrative at this season, as a rallying-cry against assimilation, I want to ask, "have you actually read the story you're trumpeting?" Because while Antiochus was clearly a schmuck, the Maccabees met violence with violence, slaughtering their coreligionists who had assimilated into Hellenized society. That's not a story I want to champion.

Of course, neither did the rabbis. The books of Maccabees aren't in the Jewish Bible, which might be an indication of some mixed feelings about this story from way back. And the sages of Talmudic times made a conscious decision to shift focus away from the military story and toward the parable of the oil. Maybe they, like me, were uncomfortable with the implications of celebrating violent zealotry. Maybe they wanted to teach us to privilege the spiritual over the historical. Or maybe they were worried that being seen as militaristic and liable to engage in guerilla warfare would have been dangerous for the Jewish community in those days.

Regardless of the practical reasons for the paradigm shift, changing the focus of the story has repercussions for us spiritually. We turn away from glorifying the clash of swords on shields, and celebrate instead the increase of light in a time of darkness, the sanctification and restoration of a holy space after hope was gone. The holiday becomes about faith and en-light-enment, symbolized by the rededication of the Temple -- which in turn can lead us to ask which of our connection-points with God need rededication at this season. I like the newer story, but I can't shake the feeling that I should be engaging with the older one, too. Only trouble is, every time I do so, I like Chanukah less.

I'm not alone in this wrestle. In her post moving past two-mindedness, Danya of Jerusalem Syndrome suggests that a mature relationship with this holiday should seek to integrate the two stories and our two responses to them. She writes:

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God Godself deserves. Is there any reason that I can't be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemming the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous?) survival?

Or, to put it another way, perhaps our question is not, "How can we possibly celebrate God and miracles if God didn't save our pure souls from the evil hands of others?" but, rather, How might we celebrate God and miracles while acknowledging the many complex ways in which our own hands have impacted history?

(Read her whole post here.) I think she's right. Honestly, there's real resonance in the place where the holiday's two stories meet: the end of the military campaign, the moment of darkness before the Temple's lamps were re-lit. This year, that's the moment I find myself returning to, as I seek to reconcile one story with the other. Chanukah shows us that God is present even in the darkness, even in places human actions have desecrated, if we will only strike a spark and believe. Chanukah teaches us that even where death and bloodshed have hidden God's presence, we can rekindle compassion and wisdom again.

And maybe there's something we can learn from the way the two stories fail to mesh for us, the way the seam between them shows. Chanukah is proof that when the old stories fail us, we can craft new ones, and find God therein.

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How Chanukah feels

A friend asked recently what Chanukah feels like. Not about its history or its literature or its liturgy, but about how it feels to celebrate.

On the first night, as night's darkness rises, there are just these two wee flames: one on the shamash and one on the first candle in the chanukiyyah. We stand around the candles and sing three short blessings: one for kindling the holiday lights, and one for the miracles of ancient days, and one offering thanks for being alive in this moment. And then the little lights just gleam there, tiny against the world of dark outside the window.

When I was a kid there were games of dreidl to be played, and presents to open. I would choose one gift each night from the gaily-wrapped pile on the sideboard. Then, and now, the holiday meant eating latkes, of course -- it wouldn't feel right to turn the calendar page at the end of December without at least once standing over the stove watching potato pancakes sizzle, then eating them topped with a dollop of early autumn's homemade applesauce. But mostly, for me as an adult, Chanukah is a holiday of small pleasures. A little bit more light, every evening at nightfall. A momentary feeling of warmth, of gratitude, at having made it through the darkening days. Maybe, if I'm lucky, a flash of awareness that I can rededicate the holy places in my own life as the Temple was rededicated of old.

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 gradual increase of light each night -- from two tiny flames to a blazing candelabrum -- mirrors the days' gradual lengthening in this hemisphere at this season. And regardless of the holiday's historical origins, when we celebrate light in the darkness, it is small, and sweet, and bright.


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On desecration and rededication

Aziz at City of Brass wrote an interesting post recently, reflecting on Jeanne's reaction  to a photo of American soldiers hanging out in a mosque after taking possession of it. When Jeanne looks at that picture, she sees desecration. Aziz argues -- I think quite compellingly -- that the real desecration was the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr using the mosque for violent means, and says it was desecrated long before the American soldiers moved in. All of this is much on my mind as we approach the end of Chanukah, which commemorates the purification of the Temple from its desecration at the hands of the Syrian empire in days of old.

Mobius suggested recently that the Iraqi insurgents are today's Maccabees. Many commentors disagreed. His critics have a point that the analogy has flaws; the Syrians, tradition teaches us, outlawed Judaism and used the Temple for pagan sacrifices. American forces in Iraq aren't forbidding the practice of Islam, nor are they converting mosques into temples of consumerism (or whatever our modern-day analogue to pagan sacrifices would be).

Then again, the comparison has some metaphorical power. A lot of people regard the American troops in Iraq as occupiers and/or as representatives of an immoral Western empire. And while it's more comfortable for me to think of the Maccabbees as freedom fighters who led a revolution to preserve religious freedom, it's also possible to read them as fanatics who preferred warfare (and the possibility of martyrdom) to assimilation.

Regardless of where one comes down on these particular comparisons, the process of examining them can be fruitful. I think it's important to ask hard questions about our stories, and to seek resonance between those stories and contemporary life. I'm not saying we need to saddle children with tough questions about the nature of desecration; for kids, Chanukah revolves around candles, latkes, presents, and songs, and that's as it should be. But as one matures and develops a sense of oneself as part of a larger whole, holidays can become terrific opportunities for this kind of exploration.

In this case, I think we can learn something from considering how the presence of American soldiers with machine guns in a mosque might feel to Iraqis, and also from considering Aziz's notion that the real desecration happened when al-Sadr used a house of prayer for his own purposes. And this contemplation, in turn, can enrich our understanding of what our holiday means.

The prophetic tradition in Judaism has always taught that Judaism should be a force for positive social change. To me, that suggests that a Chanukah celebration which doesn't spur political consciousness lacks something. Studying the story of our people's liberation and our Temple's rededication should impel us to see who is oppressed and what holy places have been made impure in our own time.

Chanukah approaches

So here's the thing: I'm still working on forging a mature, adult relationship with this holiday. In the family I come from, Chanukah is largely for kids. Adults don't make a big deal out of it (because it's a minor festival), but children do (because it involves presents). My memories of childhood Chanukahs center around candle-lighting, potato latkes, and blue-and-silver-wrapped gifts spilling out of the huge plexiglass dreidel on the dining room sideboard. I have no idea where that dreidel came from; Mom probably had it made. One year she let me paint Hebrew letters on the sides.

I became bat mitzvah over Shabbat Chanukah because that was a weekend when far-flung family could conveniently make it to San Antonio. That year my middle brother, the woodworker, made a giant chanukiyyah so we could light 12" tapers at the Saturday night bat mitzvah party. (Yes, my family has a fascination with extra-large ritual items. I have an enormous mahogany dreidel, made by the same brother, which adorns my coffee table at this time of year. Look, Texans like big stuff, I can't really explain it.)

The plexiglass dreidel has vanished into memory; the giant chanukiyyah lives at my parents' house still. After the custom of my family, I don't make a big deal out of Chanukah now, though I do give small gifts to my younger nieces and nephews. Relegating it to "minor kids' gift festival" seems a little shallow, though. I'd like to find something resonant in Chanukah. I look for religious significance in all of the Jewish festivals, so I've been thinking about what parts of this holiday have meaning for me.

Continue reading "Chanukah approaches" »

The smallest miracle

In shul this morning, we spent a while reading and discussing a passage by the Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth-century Hasidic scholar (known, as is common, by the title of his best-known work; his given name was Rabbi Yehudah Alter Lieb of Ger). The passage we studied focused on Chanukah and miracles. 

Roughly speaking, here are the six points the Sefat Emet made in the five paragraphs we read and discussed:

- Chanukah was the last miracle God performed for us, so we must find special strength in it.

- Why do we need miracles, anyway? Couldn't God just make our lives perfect so we wouldn't need them? Well: no. Miracles happen in order to demonstrate that we exist only by virtue of divine light which comes from above. In fact, the whole reason for our subjugation is so that God can redeem us with miracles.

- When God performed miracles for our ancestors, they would be sustained by the miracles for a while, but then they'd lose sight of the miraculous and God would have to do another miracle again to keep them awake.

- 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.

- When we say that the light of one miracle wanes, we're not saying that the miracle itself disappears. Each miracle is actually beyond time and shines forth forever. But miracles lose their renewal-force after a while, which is why God needs to perform more miracles, to keep us in tune with divine light.

- Chanukah, though, contains within it the power to keep renewing us until the messiah comes!

(Serious scholars of the Sefat Emet, please forgive my condensation of his work, which I will also admit to only having read in translation, because my Hebrew just isn't as good as I want it to be. The passage synopsized above comes from Sefat Emet, 1:208f.)

A few things strike me about this passage. First of all, there's this idea that we are subjugated in order that we be in need of miracles, so that God, in turn, can redeem us. This reminds me of the vaguely new-age notion that our lives contain imperfections in order that we might learn from them -- that we somehow bring ourselves to challenges in order to grow and become more enlightened.

[Tangent: The circular reasoning reminds me of the Joseph novella, which we're currently reading in shul. Joseph's brothers had to sell him into slavery (bad) so that he might wind up in Egypt (good), so that he could work for Potiphar (good) and then wind up in jail (bad), so that he could interpret dreams and wind up second-in-command of all Egypt (good), so that he could wind up back in contact with his brothers (a mixed bag, but ultimately good, because he was able to feed them in a time of famine), so that the Israelites could wind up in Egypt and not starve (good), then wind up enslaved (bad), and ultimately be redeemed by Moses working under God's command (good). See? Subjugation happens in order that we might be redeemed and thereby find awareness of, and faith in, God.]

Returning to the Sefat Emet: I like the circular reasoning of "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." If we needed another major miracle, God would give us one; since God hasn't given us one, we must not need one.

And then there's that fascinating ending. Why is it the Chanukah miracle which has the power to sustain us until the messiah comes (or, as I'd prefer to phrase it, until the messianic age when the work of healing the world will be complete)? Surely the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds were showier miracles. The Chanukah miracle was just a cruse of oil lasting longer than it should have, like those trick birthday candles that refuse to go out. (Actually, I'd argue that the Chanukah miracle was the leap of faith that it took to light the oil despite not having enough, but even so, that's a pretty small miracle.) Chanukah is a human-sized miracle. Why is that the one which will keep us going, awake and aware and believing, when the big ones won't?

I think the answer lies in the very manageability of the miracle. It's something we can almost re-enact, lighting our little candles against the darkness, increasing in light day by day as we move through the darkest time of year. The Chanukah miracle required humans in order to happen. The parting of the Sea of Reeds was all God; the burning bush was all God; but the leap of faith it took to rekindle the ner tamid was a human leap of faith. It had to be. Only humans can make that leap; God can't do that.

And that, I think, is why the Sefat Emet says Chanukah is the miracle that's going to keep us alight and alive: it's the miracle we created in the first place. There's something human about the Chanukah miracle...and something miraculous about being human.

At sundown (in about thirty minutes, here in New England at this time of year), Chanukah ends. Happy Festival of Lights to my readers, for the last time until next year. I hope your week has brought light of many kinds into your lives.