Thursday, December 29, 2016

Miketz/Chanukah - A Single Person Can Make a World of Difference

Torah Portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

A common greeting for Chanukah is “Chag Urim Sameach,” meaning happy holiday of lights. The Haftarah that we read on the first Shabbat of Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. It contains mention of Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and its lamps or branches that stood and will stand again in the rebuilt Temple.  As we are all well aware, light is a pervasive theme of Chanukah, in fact of most traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice.  Light banishes the long night’s darkness during the winter months. Light spreads hope and openness and transparency. One looks into a flame and becomes mesmerized by the beauty and paradox of a constant light that is ever changing.

I experience a sense of awe, possibility and hope every time I kindle the Chanukah candles and gaze at their flames. There is something about fire. It is powerful and dangerous, yet also cleansing and mesmerizing. The light of the smallest candle can fill a space so much larger than itself. It tells us to take courage, to peer into the darkness, into the cracks and corners of our world and our lives. It illuminates the possibilities of our lives. It reminds me that if the flame of one little candle can breathe such potential, imagine the impact that each of us can make.

One person can make a difference. Witness the legacy of Joseph in the four Torah portions, including this week’s Miketz , that tell his story.  He goes from being  a bratty younger brother who is sold to slavers, is imprisoned in Egypt, becoming its second highest leader, saving the country from famine and finally, forgives his brothers for trying to kill him. If one person can do all of that, just imagine the difference that many people standing as one can make!

The Haftarah, meanwhilie, contains a prophecy about rebuilding the Temple. The prophecy that will be fulfilled in large part due to the pragmatic pluralism practiced by Cyrus the Great over the areas that he governed. Cyrus’ position was to respect and allow the traditions of the people of his empire. It helped keep the peace and ensured that taxes would be received. In many ways this attitude is model of governing for our world today.

Zechariah contains the famous words Lo b’Chayil v’lo b’koach, ki im b’ruchi amar Adonai Tzva’ot “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.” (4:6)

This verse contains a powerful message both for Chanukah and for our world today. We recognize this timelessness and timeliness nightly in the second blessing over the Chanukah candles: bayamim ha-hem -- in those days, bazman hazeh – in this time. It takes more than armies and war and physical strength to make change and to live a good life. It requires faith – in God, in a higher power, in the goodness and possibility of mankind.  When I see the words “but by My Spirit” it tells me that I must nourish a personal godliness while recognizing that the godliness I see in others may be very different from my own.  It requires the moral strength of having one’s own belief while at the same time holding space and respect for others without feeling threatened.

That is what Chanukah represents to me, that Judaism is a constant light that is ever-changing. The faith we hold, the traditions that imbue our lives with meaning, those same traditions that we often fight against, the sense that being a Jew means something – to me this is the answer to the Sages question in the Talmud, MaiHanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Food for Thought: 
1. What does the concept of “light” mean to you?
2. Chanukah was a time of conflict not only against an oppressive ruler but it also was a civil war dealing with religious practices and ideas and the reality of assimilation. Who were the real winners of the Chanukah story?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Vayetze - A seasonal hint: Jacob didn’t ask for so much stuff

Parshat Vayetze  (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

I always think of this time of year as a time of transition. The trees are almost finished shedding their leaves and the air is charged with the smell of winter. We ourselves are transitioning from the vestiges of the High Holiday season of teshuva and gratitude to the modern world’s all too long season of consumption.  

In Vayetze, we read of the famous Jacob’s Ladder and his receiving of God’s blessing. He vows his loyalty and faith to God, “.... If God will be with me ...and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to put on ... then shall the Lord be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

While Jacob could have asked for anything, he asks only for bread and clothing. Radak, a 12th century commentator, wrote that Jacob asked only for the bare necessities of life. He didn’t even ask for water because one can find water to drink, on (and in), the earth.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, puts it even more starkly, saying that Jacob asked for the essentials, no more and no less. 

As often happens, the Parsha’s message is remarkably relevant for this time of year. We have entered into the season of consumption. Do we really need all that we buy, all that we own? 

I look around my house and I can see so much that I do not need. The mass of possessions in my home make me feel spiritually and creatively stifled as well as embarrassed. Who am I to require so much “stuff?” I know that I am not the only one to be in this situation nor am I the first. Proverbs 30:8  states “... give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me my allotted bread...”  This implies that all we need are the basic necessities lest we are so deprived that we need to resort to theft and so sated that we forsake God.  

For some, Jacob’s request of bread and clothing may seem like too little in a world filled with so much and with people who have so much ambition. The Sages also recognized the simplicity of this request and instructs us to translate the word bread to mean Torah (Breisheit Rabbah). There is no stinginess in considering the Torah as a bare necessity of life; in fact it signifies depth and largess for our souls.   

Each morning in Shacharit we recite the following prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.” The Sages would recite this prayer as they were putting on their shoes. Why? Because shoes were made of leather and therefore a luxury. If one could afford shoes then one’s other basic needs were being met. Today one could argue that in our world of plenty shoes are a necessity and if a luxury, then a low-level one at that. But we must remember that while we are in a time of perceived plenty and invented want, there are many who do not have enough bread to eat nor the money for sufficient clothing. 

Let us take Jacob’s example and realign our lives.  Let us be content with the material basics and aspire to spiritual riches. Let us share what we have with those who are in need. Let us turn this season of consumption into what our lives and time are meant to represent – generosity and caring. 

A version of this dvar has been published in the Washington Jewish Week, December 8, 2016