Higher Level: Chanuka, Light, Reconciliation, and Unity

The other night Yishama and I were driving back from his basketball game at night. We were on our way home to light candles for Chanuka. I asked him what he was learning in school. He shared with me that he was learning the machloket in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the Chanuka candles. There we read:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light for a man and his household; and those who will beautify the mitzvah [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and those who really will go all out and beautify the mitzvah,-Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

Yishama recalled the principle that we follow Hillel to increase candles because we should elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.  Amidst this dark time it is hard to understand the rationale for Beit Shammai?

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Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). On simple level the Maccabees missed Sukkot during their war and rebooted the holiday when they could. This left us with a holiday with Sukkot‘s footprint in the middle of winter. But I think that there is a deeper level still to this.

Too often we choose to remember Chanuka as a story of the small Jewish soldiers defeating the much larger Greek army. It seems closer to the facts that the unrest was actually a civil war between Jews who were aligned to the Temple tradition and Jews who had aligned to the Greeks. The miracle of the Chanuka lights is not just that the small army beat the larger one, or that a small amount of oil lasted for 8 days, but that we could reconcile a civil war. In light of this reading of history I think that Beit Shammai’s tradition makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, Beit Hillel is right that it is dark out, but as the holiday moves on we move from 8 groups or factions to one group. By the end of Beit Shammai’s Chanuka we are left with a real vision of unity.

I think about the significance of Beit Shammai’s message at this moment in history while we find ourselves embroiled in fierce political discord and irreconcilable cultural difference in our Jewish and American communities. If by the end of Beit Shammai’s celebration we reunified our community, surely even Beit Hillel would agree that we would have elevated to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.

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High School Vanity

Years ago my mother, a psychologist for over 50 years, told me that the greatest period of growth for most people is between their Senior Prom and coming home for Thanksgiving during their freshman year in college. Over Thanksgiving I was up at my mother’s house in the Berkshires and I took a look at my senior high school yearbook. Who was I at that moment over a quarter century ago?  In the middle of the period I had a transformational experience as a Junior Counselor at Jewish summer camp. Here amidst a period that could be seen as incredibly turbulent I was responsible for a bunk of a dozen 15 year-old boys.  At the moment of extreme vanity I was given the opportunity to give of myself fully to other people. In this process of giving I could start to imagine the person that I wanted to become.  What a gift?

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I was thinking about this age this week reading Vayashev, this week’s Torah portion. There at the begining we read:

Now Yakov was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Yakov: At seventeen years of age, Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers, and he, being a lad to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Yosef brought bad reports of them to their father. ( Genesis 37:1-2)

Here we meet Yosef as this age and he is interacting with his brothers. To explain what it meant to be a lad Rashi brings a midrash:

His actions were childish: he dressed his hair, he touched up his eyes so that he should appear good-looking (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).

Giving a bad report on his brothers Yosef is not a person of character. He is vain and self absorbed. He is a young person who is more interested in how he appears to be than who is he is.

Looking at the vanity manifest my yearbook page it is not hard to imagine the self important quotes and overly curated picture that Yosef would have chosen to put on his yearbook. What would Yosef’s life have looked like if instead of looking after the flocks with his older brothers he was given a bunk of children to counsel?

Between Achilles and Yakov

Years ago when I left yeshiva and returned to the university it took that as a an opportunity to rethink many of classics that I had the fortune of reading during my college experience. It is always so interesting to see the parallels between the great works of Westerns Literature and the Torah. With this in mind I have been thinking about Homer’s Iliad this last week. There we meet the hero, Achilles, who is the son of the mortal Peleus and the Nereid Thetis. His mother attempted unsuccessfully to make her son immortal. Thetis held the young Achilles by the heel and dipped him in  the river Styx; everything the sacred waters touched became invulnerable,  but the heel where there was a hatzitzah remained dry and therefore unprotected. In the end of the story Paris ,aided by Apollo, mortally wounded Achilles in the heel with an arrow.

I believe that there is an interesting parallel between Achilles and our the hero from this weeks Torah portion Yakov. We see that Yakov who is left alone from the rest of his family meets his match in an all night struggle with an angel of God. Mortal verses divine locked all night long until the angel finds Yakov’s one vulnerable spot. Offering to bless Yakov and to change his name to Israel the angel bargains his way out of the dead lock.

While the similarity between these two heroes is interesting, the difference between the Iliad and the Torah is much more telling. Achilles dies when he is forced to realize that his is not totally divine. In contrast, Yakov achieves greatness in realizing his limitation. Yakov’s Achilles heel is that he has been running his whole life. Finally with a limp he can settle down and start building a nation. Being in touch with our vulnerability keeps us humble and more in touch with our humanity.

A Moment of Meaning: Holding off Cynicism

It is a challenge to be committed to an ancient tradition and to live in the modern world. So, while I believe one can easily defend the inner meaning of a life commitment to Judaism in light of secular values, it is a greater challenge to do so without becoming defensive. There are times it seems that it would be easier to shutter myself in with people who are like-minded and not deal with the outside world. But at the same time I truly enjoy engaging the larger world and the questions that it provides. Open-minded inquiry seems to allow free discourse between rivaling truth claims. One would hope that this would engender a certain modicum of curiosity; but I find our conversations often slip into cynicism.

While one can feel like they are in a tremendous groove in the free market of ideas, cynicism is a rut. And once in it, it wears on you until it is a chasm.  The tone has been set, so that even a well intending comment is perceived as ridicule. A humorous comment meant to lighten the mood just digs us in a little deeper.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Lavan, the villainous father-in-law of Yakov, blesses his children and grandchildren. We read, “And Lavan awoke early in the morning, he kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them, then Lavan went and returned to his place” (Genesis 32:1). Even a sinner like Lavan ( see last week’s blog) might have a moment of meaning. He returns to his perch of contempt, but the Torah takes a moment to express his compassion. He was not beyond love or appreciation for the family that Yakov and his daughters were making. I am not holding my breath for a similar moment of meaning between President and Jared.

I realize that I need to work on maintaining open inquiry without being cynical of others’ views. We learn from this week’s portion that for all of us it starts with being open and present with our emotions with the ones we love. Showing that I care is not a sign of weakness. Surely, there is no sin in sincerity.

From Lavan to Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh: A History of White Supremacy

Today is Kristallnacht which commemorates a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. On one hand it is crazy to realize that is has been 80 years since this happened. In the larger context it is strange to realize that it has only been 80 years and it seems that this day finds it natural home in our collective Jewish calendar already riddled with antisemitism. It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to Antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative?

For me the most interesting example of this happens during Passover. Every year on the Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  Long before Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan who wanted to kill us all.

Given that today is Kristallnacht and the events in Pittsburgh two weeks ago where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue I have grown curious at the long history of Antisemitism. That search brought me back to Chaye Sara, last week’s Torah portion. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ranWhy did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance Lavan is Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface this does not seem so horrible. This is not remotely at the level of many of the other Antisemites from our history.

And than I got to thinking about the meaning of his name.  Lavan means white. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

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Recently my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are white just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi these Whites Supremacists and Lavan are both in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and the Rabbis’ reading of Lavan might argue that their hatred and violence is legitimate or even virtuous. We see from it origins White Supremacy is just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

Looking for a Place to Rest: A Meditation in Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting

As a Rabbi, a Jewish professional, and a father, this past week has been difficult both personally and professionally.  After a long and intense week, I am ready for a peaceful Shabbat at home. Or at least I thought I was, until a colleague asked me how I was going to talk about the events of  last Shabbat with my children. Shabbat has always been a meaningful practice for connecting as a family and with the Jewish people. Last Shabbat, however, during what should have been a peaceful celebration of the creation of the world, 11 members of the larger Jewish family were taken from us, and their worlds violently destroyed. My colleague’s inquiry raised questions in me: Will Shabbat ever feel the same for our family, and for the larger Jewish community? In the wake of what has happened, how do we find comfort in Shabbat this week and in the future? I suspect other people share the same concerns.

I realized that I needed to go back to the foundation and think about all of the aspects of what has made Shabbat meaningful to me. One idea that has comforted me this week has been singing the chorus to Yom Shabbaton, which is one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot– songs. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing in the chorus:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent

On one level, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Seven days after the dove was first sent from the ark to check if the flood was gone, it found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden in the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful far too often, the Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast sea of chaos. While the world still needs to be rebuilt, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope. In seeing how many Americans of every creed and color have shown up to support the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I find hope – a safe place to land and rest before we begin the work to rebuild our broken world.  

We can also interpret the  chorus as a reference to the Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove. Throughout time, we have been forced to move from place to place due to cruelty, oppression,and violence at the hands of others. Like the dove, we desperately seek a place to rest. While America has always been a relatively safe haven for the Jewish people, the events of Pittsburgh this past Shabbat force us to recognize that the long history of anti-Semitism – and its existence in contemporary America – is far from over.

Throughout history, gathering to observe Shabbat has been a revolutionary act, a public affirmation of our ideals of peace, life, and community in the face of oppressors who’d deny us all three. It may seem contradictory, but in creating a weekly space to find rest despite the events in the world around us, we actively reject anti-Semitism and bigotry. By gathering together to observe Shabbat, we connect to the shared cultural history in which Jews have observed Shabbat throughout challenging and difficult times, and physically reaffirm our commitment to Jewish values.    

“Birds in Flight”, photo of stone cut from my parents’ home

In both interpretations of the chorus, Shabbat manifests not only as a weekly time, but as a sacred space as well. Shabbat is not just an aspiration, but a destination. All I can do – and all any of us can do – is fill the space of Shabbat with love, peace, and hope for my nuclear family, my larger Jewish family, and the world. My plan for this Shabbat is to hug my children a little tighter, invite others to join us in this holy space, and share this song of hope with the world.

-cross-posted FJC blog

Opened Her Eyes: Some Insight on How See

There are so many other important stories in Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, that we often overlook the riveting story of Hagar and Yishmael in the desert. There we read:

When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (Genesis 21:15-19)

What is going on here for Hagar? At first blush she seems incredibly absent as a parent when they are in a crisis. How could she ignore her child in need?

Looking for interpretations of this moment I came across John Gadsby Chapman‘s 1830 painting Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert. 

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Here Hagar just seems annoyed by their predicament. Chapman seems to capture this in Hagar’s teen angst in an eye roll. It is noteworthy in the Torah Hagar is crying, but God is responding to Yishmael’s voice. Following Chapman’s reading this could be understood as God’s critique of her being callous to the needs of Yishamael. While she is crying God is modelling empathy and saying I will respond to his needs and not your crying. God is redirecting her as a parent.

Alternatively we could see Hagar in a more understanding way. In Sforno’s 15th Century commentary on “opened her eyes” he writes:

God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had not been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”(Gen. 21:19)

Maybe it was not a miracle at all that Hagar suddenly could see the well that was in front of her the whole time. Rather, Hagar needed some distance from the problem to see the solution. When she got to the balcony she could remove herself from the crisis, regain her bearings, return to her instincts, and only than could she see the well.

In either way of telling this story it is one of reorientation for someone who is lost. Regardless of if you see Hagar as the protagonist or antagonist of this story it is a story about alienation which is profound in that her name means “the alien”. Any way you look at it this is an important story about how we see ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.


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