Good Riddance

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we hear God instructing Moshe to go to visit Pharaoh to warn him of the plague of locusts. It is curious that God does not tell him to go, rather, to come to Pharaoh. We read, “God said to Moshe, ’Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.’” (Exodus 10:1). It is even more confusing for Moshe who grew up in the house of Pharaoh assuming the Pharaoh himself was a god. What does it mean that God might be with Pharaoh?

This question gets even more complicated next week in Beshalach. There we see that it is Pharaoh who sent the Israelites from Egypt and God that did not allow them to take the most direct route to the Promised Land. Is it possible that Pharaoh has the power to release the Israelites and God is the obstruction?

It is clear that God is everywhere, and that Pharaoh is not a god. But it is still challenging to think that God stands with evil or next week God gets in the way of a clear path toward justice. It would have been much easier for Moshe to exact the plagues against Pharaoh, his court, and all of Egypt without having to be reminded that God is to be found in evil people. Even if Pharaoh is evil he can be a source of redemption. We are all created in the image of God. Evil when confronting injustice we must be reminded of the divine potential of the oppressor.

Moshe loyally follows God’s directions, but that does not absolve him from having to navigate his own moral compass. Yes, we need to find a way to speak truth to power. In life’s journey, we can never forget our sense of direction. If we forget this, we will not know if we are coming or going.

Pictures Show Donald Trump Leaving the White House for the Final Time As  President

Like many others I am relieved and even thrilled that we had a peaceful transition of power and Trump is gone. In the spirit of this lesson we contemplate the good in saying, “Good Riddance”. He is no righteous person, but still he deserves a blessing. I am reminded of something my Oma used to say, ” Gehe mit Gott, aber geh! – Go with God, but please do go”.

Speech Impediments: Words of Justice

Today Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If you have not listened to it you should:

“The Hill We Climb” reads, in part:

The loss we carry

A sea we must wade

We braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions of what just is

Isn’t always justice

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Some how we have weather and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished

On a day filled with tons of anticipation, anxiety, and emotion, her hopeful poetry won the day. A reluctant prophet, like Jonah, her vision of justice asked us to join her in our needed repentance and rebuilding.

Reading more about Gorman I learned that like Biden, she had a speech impediment as a child. Biden had a stutter; Gorman had difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. She told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that her speech impediment was one reason she was drawn to poetry at a young age. As I have explored in the past, there might be a connection between Biden’s stutter and his long career in public life. Regardless of the nature or cause, a speech impediment is highly stigmatized disability. It is easy to imagine them both silenced due to their speech impediments. Through this lens we see that Biden and Gorman have tremendous courage to step up and speak to and for this nation. What is the nature of this courage?

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

In Shoftim we read about the establishment of the court system and the most famous quote:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, I think this reading overlooks the speaker. As we know, Moshe had a speech impediment. This is the text recording his stammer.

If this is true, why does the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print at this moment? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Biden’s leadership is founded on his empathy born out of personal hardships. Gorman’s poetry is born out of her working on pronouncing certain sounds correctly. We all know bullies prey on people who are different or weak. To truly pursue justice we need to connect to our own experiences of being marginalized. Biden, Gorman, and Moshe share the experience of overcoming the challenge of communicating which is the root of their pursuit of justice.  Their courage is founded on a profound strength of leadership founded on vulnerability.

We should never make fun of people just because they are different than us. We can disagree, but there is a never a reason to be a bully. We must always strive to understand each other, especially those we do not understand. To work for justice we need to have empathy for those who are experiencing hardship and those that are silenced.  Justice we shall surely pursue. We cannot just accept the status quo. Inspired by the remarkable words of Gorman, Biden, and Moshe we all need to come together to do it and play our part in making process in this unfinished nation.

-Also see Stammering Justice

-Also see Revisiting Stammering Justice

-Also the Stuttering Club: Empathy and Leadership

Merit of Female Leadership: Exodus and Our Generation

Recently I have found myself listening to to Kings & Queens by Ava Max. Yes it is pop, but I do think it has a powerful messages here about female leadership. Give it a listen:

But why have I been thinking about this song? Yes, I am also excited for Vice President Harris’s inauguration. There is also the line “Disobey me, then baby, it’s off with your head” is taken from the 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by the Queen of Hearts . This is resonating for me with Pelosi‘s handing Trump his second impeachment. And how much do we owe Stacey Abrams for getting Georgia to give the Democrats the Senate.

In light of the insurrection in DC this song took on new meaning after the I heard U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) speech on January 6th. A combat veteran of the Iraq War, Duckworth served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. In 2004, after her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents, she suffered severe combat wounds, which caused her to lose both of her legs and some mobility in her right arm. She was the first female double amputee from the war. Despite her grievous injuries, she sought and obtained a medical waiver that allowed her to continue serving in the Illinois Army National Guard until she retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2014. Standing in the Senate floor in front of her “Law and Order” Republican colleagues she said:

I earned my wounds, proudly fighting in a war I did not support, on the orders of a president that I did not vote for – because I believed in, and still believe in, the values of our nation… I regret that I have no rucksack to pack for my country, no Black Hawk to pilot, nor am I asking for any grand gesture to my Republican colleagues. All that I’m asking of you is to reflect on the oath that you have sworn, the damages done to our union today, and the sacrifices that have given so much to this nation.

Hearing the depth of what she was saying I found myself singing the line from Kings & Queens when she sings:

And you might think I’m weak without a sword
But if I had one, it’d be bigger than yours

In the Torah portions we read around now we read about the lives of the Israelites in slavery and their exodus from Egypt. We learn in the Talmud:

In the merit of the righteous women who were in that generation, [the children of] Israel were redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

Again it is clear that redemption will come from the merit of the righteous women female leaders of our generation. Thank you.

The Righteous of Sodom: A Glimmer of Hope After the Insurrection

A week ago we saw something grievous in the Washington D.C. The events of January 6, 2021 were not a protest—it was a seditious insurrection again democracy. It brought to our attention the evils and consequences of unchecked reality of white supremacy and the power hungry perversion of truth. For most of us, seeing this reality makes us doubt in the future of the republic. Will our democracy survive?

Related this question I got to thinking about God’s judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Three men came to Avraham in the plains of Mamre. After the angels received the hospitality of Avraham and Sarah, the Lord reveals to Avraham God’s plan. God will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because their sin is very grievous.” Avraham boldly steps forward and argues with God. There we read:

Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? ( Genesis 18:23-25 )

It seems to be essence of human agency is our capacity to argue for justice. The argument continues, will God spare the city should fifty righteous people be found within it, to which the Lord agrees. Avraham then pleads for mercy at successively lower numbers—first forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten—with the Lord agreeing each time.(Genesis 18:23-32) The city was evil, but God would have spared it if there were ten righteous people.

Sodom and Gomorrah
Jacob Jacobsz. de Wet 

On January 6th we saw a violent invasion on the seat of our democracy in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election. It was a failed coup—our democracy is in peril. 

Today we saw a glimmer of hope. The Congress held the President accountable for his role in inciting this violent attack on democracy. Trump will be remembered as the only President to be impeached twice. The article of impeachment charges the President with “incitement of insurrection” for “spreading false statements” about the election and challenging the Electoral College results. Though Republicans were united in opposing the first impeachment of Trump in 2019, a record number stepped forward and broke ranks when they voted alongside Democrats to impeach the president. They included the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. She was joined by:

  • Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y. 
  • Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
  • Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
  • Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
  • Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich.
  • Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C.
  • Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif.
  • Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio

Trump is a problem, but he is only a symptom of a much larger evil in our midst. While there is still a tremendous amount of work we need to do to heal our republic, there is a glimmer of hope when we have 10 righteous Republicans who voted for accountability and justice. We need to all step forward to demand that we do not “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty”.

Defiling the Pure: 1/6/21 In Light of Chanukah

Like many others I am surprised by how not surprised I was by the abhorrent events that transpired at the Capitol on January 6th. We all knew that Trump was never going to abdicate his throne easily. He orchestrated a seditious mob to use their white privilege to stop electoral process. They were not successful in having a coup, but they got much further that most of us could ever imagine. While they were defiling the hallowed halls of democracy it seemed that the experiment of this republic had come to an end. The assault on our government was not just just due to these terrorist or a “wannabe tin-pot dictator scared of losing power” (Thank you Senator Tammy Duckworth), but also the inept or complicit law enforcement.

A Bucks County Trump supporter posted about a 1776-style revolution during  Capitol riot. Then, he

Amidst chaos we strive to make sense of our reality. Sadly we as Jews have a long history of dealing with hatred in its many forms. I found myself this mourning stirred by Rambam’s unique language describing the historical events that lead to the institution of the holiday of Chanukah. There we read:

…they entered the Temple and broke through it, defiling the things that were pure. The people of Israel were sorely distressed by their enemies, who oppressed them ruthlessly until the God of our ancestors took pity, saved and rescued them from the hands of the tyrants. The Hasmonean great priests won victories, defeating the Syrian Greeks and saving Israel from their power. They set up a king from among the priests and Israel’s kingdom was restored for a period of more than two centuries, until the destruction of the second Temple. (Laws of Chanukah 3:1)

While I have to dilution that the Capitol is pure, the images still ring true. What is most telling is the in response to throwing off tyranny, they victorious priest run to have a king.

In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

I was most struck when he said:

I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.

We still do not know who was responsible for what transpired on January 6th. It was a total break down. In cleaning up, people need to held accountable. It is clear that our media is part of the reason that there are so many people who are ignorant of civics and distrustful of facts. Democracy is fragile and we are in peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside. Like Augustus, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, others will come like Donald Trump seeking power, assuring the public that they will solve our problems. Exploiting the distrust of the media, fears and civic ignorance we have paved the way for another despot to come.

As the Hasmoneans had to do after the Greeks, we have a lot of work to do to clean up what has been defiled. But if there is anything else that can be learned for Democracy from Chanukah, it is the Rabbinic movement of the the Menorah in the Temple to the Chanukiah in the home. While the Capitol represents our democracy, it is not the limit of that ideal. As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

For our democracy to survive civics and decency needs to thrive in our homes. The power of democracy cannot come from without, but it needs to come from within. It comes from every citizen taking responsibility for themselves, their families, their communities, and the collective. The light from our homes keeps tyranny at bay.

A Time for Introverts: Yakov and Yosef

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we do not see too much action. To be honest, compared with last week’s portion, this one seems a bit anticlimactic. The era of the Patriarchs is coming to an end and we are waiting for the narrative to pick up again in Shmot with the story of the Israelites, Moshe, Aaron, Miriam, and their redemption. We find ourselves in a lull in the action. But before we roll the credits on the book of Genesis, we do get the powerful ending to this epic we deserve.

Vayehi starts off, “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Gen 47:28) The Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold. Even before we compare Yaakov and Yosef, it is hard not to relate to the symmetry. The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx. Yaakov  and Yosef are in this way the same.

But let us move ahead and highlight some of the differences between this father and son. Taking a look at Yaakov’s life we see a person developing in isolation. While, at first we see Yaakov cleaving to the heel of his twin brother, the text quickly shifts and Yaakov is depicted as a contemplative loner sitting in the tent (Gen.25:26-27). He is alone again when he flees home in fear of his brother to live in a foreign land (Gen 28:10-11). Amidst his flight he stops in Luz which later called Bet El (Gen. 28:19) There he has a divine dream of the ladder. Years later we see Yaakov alone again when he is returning home. (Gen. 32:25). Yaakov’s most important moments are when he is by himself. As the Midrash would have us understand his time in the tent was devoted to Torah study. But it is clear in the later two cases that Yaakov’s most powerful educational experiences with God are when he is alone. It is also interesting to note the development in his own education that in Luz the interaction is passive and just a dream where as when he returning home his is physically wrestling with God. This refinement of his character is picked up in the imagery of the movement from the rocks that he gathers to put under his head to the dust in which he and the angels of God roll around in amidst their struggle.

As a student of God Yaakov is truly a lonely man finding company with God. But, how do we see Yaakov as a teacher? Yaakov engineers the same educational environment that he learned about God for his chosen student Yosef. Yaakov sends Yosef to check on the very brothers who scorn him (Gen 37:13). It is no coincidence that when he gets there they are gone. The classroom is set; the apple is on desk, the board is clean, there is plenty of chalk, there are no distractions in the classroom, and the best teacher in the world is waiting His next student. Yosef comes into his own personal classroom asks where his brothers are and leaves (Gen 37:25) Yosef is gone and so is the educational moment. It will take him his whole life to come to realize God. In contrast, Yosef education happens in the moments of his trying to connect with others. First with his brothers, then in Potifar’s house, then prison with Pharaoh’s baker and sommelier , then with Pharaoh in interpreting his dreams, and then again with his brothers. It is clear that Yosef derech haLimud , method of learning, is very different then his father’s derech. Yaakov finds God in the extremes moments of radical solitude, while Yosef finds God in social joining.

Yosef lived his entire adult life away from his father. Not only did he not have the comforts of family, he never had his father validate his method of seeing the world. This all comes to a beautiful conclusion in this week’s parsha when Yaakov says, “ El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and God blessed me. And said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples…” (Gen 48:3-4). God appeared to Yaakov in the solitude of Luz in the dream and blessed him with the blessing of the entire book of Genesis to be fruitful and multiple, but for the first time the bracha has been expended to “making of you a community of peoples”. If you are open to hear it you hear the reconciliation between the loner and the social learner. Yaakov is not saying that he was wrong, but he is finally able to see that Yosef’s way of seeing the world is also blessed by God and critical to future of the Israelites, and the world. In a book of conflicts between brothers and fathers and sons. We end of the beginning with an expanded blessing. We have a model beyond a nation of individuals, we have a community of those striving to learn.

Amidst Covid-19 some of us are hurting because we are like Yosef seeking social connection. For the true extravert people social distancing is really hard. For others who are like Yakov, these social distancing has translated into a a wonderful time to get in touch with themselves. For the introverts, Covid-19 has been a welcome respite from forced social engagements. For most of us we relate to both types of learners, not being either Yakov or Yosef, but both. I sincerely hope that this coming year we all get to learn and strive in the ways we choose that work for us. 

Amazon.com: Social Distancing It's Like A Vacation For Introverts T-Shirt:  Clothing

Not What It Seems: 2020 In Review

As 2020 comes to an end it seems like we need to reflect on this last year. I have really enjoyed a much needed break, but even being much better rested I am not sure I have the needed intestinal fortitude needed to really review this year. It was not what any of us expected or where hoping for. A cursory look back on 2020 reminds me of something my dad used to say, ” So, otherwise Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” It was a tough year for all of us regarding from the Covid-19, the teetering medical system, all things Trump and election, economic collapse, the myriad of racial issues in this country that came to light, not having seen my mother in way way too long, and social isolation in general. It was just a very difficult year.

And the same time I really count my blessings this year. While we did get sick, it was really very mild. While It has been month and month since my kids have seen my mother, they now talk to her every day. While my work feel very different than expected, it is still important and challenging. While I miss our community, we feel taken care of my those who looked after our needs when we were sick. Upon reflection the biggest blessing from an otherwise terrible year has been my ability to be present for my family this past year. I would not trade that time for anything.

When reflecting on 2020 I keep on coming back to one of my favorite stories. Here is a version:

There was once a great man. He used to study at night, and sometimes he got a famous visitor—once he was visited by Elijah the Prophet. “Come,” said the prophet ” I want to see whether your neighbors are hospitable. Together we will disguise ourselves as beggars. But no matter what happens, I want you to observe without asking me any questions or seeking any explanations.” And so it came to pass. They left and came to a very poor hovel, hardly worthy of human occupation. They knocked and found that a poor farmer and his wife lived there together with a cow, their only possession, which provided their meager livelihood: they sold milk in the next village, and drank what was left. It kept them from starving. The farmer couple was poor but very friendly, and ushered the two “beggars” in. They let them sleep on their best straw (they had no beds), and they shared a slice of hard bread and a cracked bowl of milk from their cow with them. They entertained the guests with friendly conversation until they went to sleep. In middle of the night the pious man noticed that Elijah had slipped away to overhear Elijah prayer for the death of their cow. The next morning they woke up to a terrible scream. The farmer’s wife had gone to milk the cow, had found the animal stretched out on the floor, stiff and dead. “How will we live?” she wailed. “Now we will die, too!” While befuddled and curious the man did not question Elijah. They had to leave their hosts sobbing. That evening they came into a village and they found a nice house made of brick: servants were bustling about, and they were told that the wealthy owner of this nice house was preparing a party and the host turned them away. And so, the man and Elijah went to sleep with an empty stomach. The man awoke the next day to see Elijah praying by the wall of the wealthy man. And just like that a miracle happened and a crack within in the wall was repaired. At this point the man could not take it anymore and demanded to know why Elijah needed to punish the righteous and reward the wicked. Elijah said to him, “There is more to things than what meets the eye . . .When we were sleeping in the poor couple’s hut, I heard the angel of death, who had come to take the life of the farmer’s wife. I pleaded with him and I convinced him to take the cow in her stead. And of the miser?” In the wall was hidden a jar with gold coins he did not deserve. Do you have any more questions?” “No,” said the man. “Now I understand that this world is not what it seems to be to us, and we can only trust that justice will be done. Thank you for taking me on your trip . . .” And with this Elijah disappeared. (Adapted from Chabad.org)

When thinking about this story and the myriad of blessings I have in my life, I realize that this last year could have been a lot worse. Hope that 2021 is a year of healing and repair, we need it. We have a lot of work to do to put all of the lessons of 2020 into action to make 2021 a real blessing for everyone.

Forest Service looks to move dead cow on Sopris trail | PostIndependent.com

A Public Health Issue: On Margarine, Masks, and Maris Ayin

A weight has been lifted with the circulation of a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully with this panacea and more vaccines on the way, we can see the light at the end of this long tunnel. While this is incredibly good news, we are still months away from any real salvation from this plague. 

I was excited to see that the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America put out a statement earlier this week outlining their guidance regarding a Covid-19 vaccine. Based on the guidance of Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Dovid Cohen, they wrote:

Halacha obligates us to care for our own health and to protect others from harm and illness. In addition, Halacha directs us to defer to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to both treating and preventing illness.

There has long been an almost uniform consensus among leading medical experts that vaccines are an effective and responsible manner of protecting life and advancing health. 

Similarly Rabbi Avi Weiss published a piece in the New York Post articulating the clear Torah obligation to preserve  life. Under advisement of your personal health care provider there is a mandate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available. But there still remains the question as to what we need to do during this  in-between period when some but not everyone has been vaccinated. After we get vaccinated, what is our mandate before the public health officials telling us that the coast is clear?

There is an interesting chapter in halachic history that might help us reflect on our current situation. In 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter, Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory butter substitute. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries won the prize with his invention of “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine. Serving a parve butter-like substance at a meat meal set off a halachic problem of Maris Ayin. It is prohibited to act in a way which strictly speaking is permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something forbidden. Or for us now, even if someone got a newly invented vaccine are they still obligated to wear a mask and maintain CDC social distancing rules? 

Unilever seeks buyer for its butter substitutes division

The original case for Maris Ayin comes from a Mishnah discussing the appropriate attire of the priests in the Temple- lest they even seem to be doing any impropriety. There we learn:

For it is one’s duty to seem be free of blame before others as before God, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) ( Shekalim 3:2)

In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably, nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. 

One of the more famous applications of Maris Ayin applies to cooking and/or eating  meat in pareve almond milk. To the onlooker it appears to be a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The simple solution to this mix up is to place almonds down to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring. Based on this idea, at the outset when people served margarine at a meat meal they would put the container on the table to signal that it was actually parve. We would not want anyone to believe that it was actually butter. But when did this practice stop? We clearly do not do this anymore. 

When dealing with issues of Maris Ayin Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz extrapolated a general halachic rule that any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion (Kreisi U’Pleisi Y”D 87, 8). The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. In the case of a COVID-19 vaccination, Rabbi Eibeshutz ruling is fascinating in that something being commonplace would practically coincide with our achieving herd immunity. This is to say that we will all need to keep on our masks on until none of us need them. Our obligation is not not limited to getting the vaccination. When it comes to wearing a mask and Maris Ayin, it  is an expression of physical and spiritual public health.

Infinite Within the Finite: On Chanukah

I love this mobius shaped infinite donut for Chanukah:

Ein-Sofganiah

Seeing this wonderful image reminded me of this Möbius Torah I wrote with Shalom Orzach. Check out Limitless: Möbius Torah 2.0. There we wrote:

The Ari z”l understood that God’s being was Ein Sof without end or limit. God filled everything, hence for creation to happen there needed to be Zimzum- an act of God contracting, diminishing as it were God’s
presence, to make room for the world to come into existence. In order to “create” God had to limit God’s presence.

On Chanukah we celebrate what seems to be God making room by contracting God’s self. There we learn:

The Gemara asks: What is Chanukah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Chanukah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings. ( Shabbat 21b) 

What started as a civil war was transformed by the Rabbis into a holiday of miracles. Chanukah celebrates the infinite light of the finite oil. The Rabbinic holiday is a celebration of the miracle of the cruse of oil as proof of God’s presence.

A Light in the Darkness: A Self-less Chanuka

Every year for Chanuka we review the machloket in the Gemara in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the 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)

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?

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.

This year amidst Covid- 19 restrictions this holiday amidst the darkness takes on additional meaning. Being socially distant reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Franz Kafka. Once questioned about his Jewish identity he said, ” What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.” How do we make meaning for ourselves during this Chanuka?

This Chanuka makes me rethink the great story about out philtrum, or medial cleft, under the nose. As the story goes:


Rabbi Simlai expounded: What does an embryo resemble when it is in its mother’s uterus? A folded writing scroll….A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other(Niddah 30b)

Long before civil wars, we could see the world without us or our needs in it. The wisdom is that amidst the darkness we can be selfless. Can we recall a time before we got hit in the face? Imagine a time when we just saw the world as it was without us in it. This is the foundation for building back better.

The Light Shines in the Darkness – Friends of Justice

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