Sunday, November 29, 2015

Light in the Darkness (Chanukah)

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Talmud teaches that when the sun set at the end of the world’s first day, Adam and Eve wept with terror, fearing that it might never rise again.  All that night, they prayed fervently for the light to return, and when morning came, they sang songs of thanksgiving and praise.

We know, on a literal level, that every night will be followed by a new dawn.   But when we find ourselves in dark places emotionally and spiritually, we, too, may very well feel as if we will never again experience light and joy.  How do we find illumination when our life journeys take us into the dark night of the soul?

We can learn from the festival of Chanukah, which always falls around the new moon closest to the winter solstice—which is to say, the darkest days of the darkest month of the year.  Throughout the holiday, we kindle candles—not huge bonfires but small sparks of light, adding a little more illumination each passing night.  Thus we begin to dispel the darkness, bit by bit.

Commenting on this practice, the Hasidic teacher Sfas Emes notes that our challenge is ultimately not just to light candles but to be candles, sharing our inner light with those around us.  One of the great miracles in this world is the ability of a little light to dispel deep darkness.  One small candle can illuminate an entire room.  Every day, legions of ordinary men and women perform countless unnoticed acts of valor.  Violence and destruction make the headlines, but quiet goodness sustains the world.

Over the festival’s eight nights, we burn thirty six Chanukah lights (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36).  Yes, I know those little blue boxes actually contain forty-four candles, but eight of them serve as the nightly shamash, the candle used to kindle the others, which is really just a glorified match rather than a symbol of the holiday itself.  Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, author of Seasons of Life, teaches that each Chanukah light represents one of the lamed-vovniks, the legendary thirty six hidden righteous ones of every generation who preserve the world with their light.  Again: light is found in unexpected places, and a little goes a very long way.

This week, as Chanukah approaches, try asking yourself: Where do I find light when my world feels dark?  And what can I do to kindle light—and blessing and hope—for others?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Immigrants (Portion Vayishlach)

Jacob arrived safely in the city of Shechem. . .

In a dangerous world, we all long for shelter and safety—just as Jacob does in this week’s portion, Vayishlach.  And in truth, most of us in CABI are blessed with secure homes and more than enough food and resources to live well.  During this week of Thanksgiving, we should not forget that we are incredibly lucky, as Jews, to live where and when we do—in the United States of America in the twenty-first century.  We enjoy privileges and prosperity that our ancestors could hardly have even imagined.

In my favorite English reading from our Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, we ask God: “Teach us to give thanks for what we have by sharing with those in need.”  In this season, we think especially of the hungry and homeless, and of the refugees who come to this land in search of freedom and safety, just like our own forefathers and mothers.

In that spirit, I’d like to share a poem written by Alvin Greenberg—may his memory be for a blessing—a member of our Jewish community who died just a couple of months ago.  It reminds us that in the end, we are all sojourners here, with much reason to be grateful:


birds first.  and certain animals.  desert nomads.
sailors, peddlers, concert pianists, mailmen.
itinerant preachers, doctors, gamblers, lawyers,

even the sun, whose constant comings and goings
govern our lives, down to the finest detail,
telling us when to wake, what to wear and eat.

yes, just as your frightened congressman fears,
the nation’s in the hands of the immigrants,
and not just the nation, the world: everything

moves: and aboard this cosmic steamer, earth,
most of us huddle in steerage, a bundle or two
of possessions at our feet, stomachs queasy.

children crying: only knowing where we’ve been.

Friday, November 13, 2015

To Know the Dark (Portion Vayetze)

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
                                    -Wendell Berry

Night is like a foreign country.  Under the cloak of darkness, even one’s own neighborhood and home can feel strange, mysterious and frightening.  Boundaries are blurred, sounds are magnified, the unexpected waits around every corner.  This can be both terrifying and exhilarating—and sometimes both at the same time. 

Talmud teaches that Jacob established the Jewish tradition of praying at night, in this week’s portion, Vayetze.  As the teaching goes, Abraham encountered God in the clarity of morning, Isaac met the Divine in the peace of evening.  Jacob, the Godwrestler, experiences the Creator in the dark of night.  That is certainly the case in Vayetze as he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels going up and down on it.  Upon awakening, Jacob expresses the awe and mystery of the night-encounter: “Surely God is in the place—and I did not know it!”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests it is no accident that Jacob—later known as Israel—is not just our forefather but also our namesake.  He notes: “We, the people of Israel, are named after Jacob and not the other patriarchs because Jacob was open to these encounters with God in the darkness, at the times of his greatest difficulties. The opening words of the Parsha are ‘Vayetze Yaakov’ – ‘and Jacob departed.’  He is running away, afraid, preoccupied, struggling, and that is where he encounters God. It is wonderful to encounter God like Abraham did - in bright and peaceful light of day. Perhaps it is much more complicated and takes more awareness to encounter God in the darkness of despair and suffering.”

 We live in a nation that considers the pursuit of happiness as part of its creed—and it is surely a good thing to live joyfully.  But our tradition reminds us that God is found in the darkness, too, and a life that denies the strangeness—and even the struggles—of night as a source of the Divine is attenuated and incomplete.  This week, as Thanksgiving approaches, do not forget to give thanks for all that brings you pleasure and delight.  But consider, too, the possibility that God may be found in the darkness, which, as Wendell Berry notes, blooms and sings in its own mysterious ways.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Beyond Binaries (Portion Toldot)

Jacob is the hero and Esau is the villain—this is how Jewish tradition has, for the most part, portrayed the two main characters in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.  For the Rabbis who interpreted the story, Jacob represents the Jewish people, while Esau becomes a stand-in for the brutal Roman empire that ruled over them.  Thus they read the story as a kind of epic battle of good against evil.

But the actual Torah text is far more subtle, blurring moral lines and avoiding simplistic binaries.  Esau comes across as a bit simple-minded and impetuous—he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils—but also earnest and well-intentioned.  Jacob is clever to a fault.  He connives with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing, and accrues a fortune through deception.  He is the classic trickster.

And so the Jacob and Esau of Genesis are a complicated mix of good and bad, their relationship a blend of love and hatred.  They are bound together as friends and enemies and, above all, brothers.

I much prefer this complex version of the story to the Rabbis’ two-dimensional caricature.  It feels far truer to life, which tends not to follow reductionist notions of virtue and vice.  As Biti Roi, an Israeli student of kabbalah once taught me: Life is not about “either/or” but “both/and.”  This is why Jewish tradition often starts out with binaries—pure and impure, light and dark, holy and ordinary—and then goes out of its way to blur the boundaries between them.  Talmud is all about taking such simplistic distinctions and intentionally complicating them, in order to better reflect the multivalent nature of reality.

How fitting, then, that approaching this week of portion Toldot, the Reform movement took a historic step away from simplistic binaries of gender as male-female.   At the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, delegates unanimously passed a sweeping resolution calling for inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in our congregations, communities, and institutions.   Among other things, it calls for congregations, clergy, camps and other movement affiliates to “begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. . . ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. . .  and review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected.”

As a URJ member congregation, may we at CABI take pride in this milestone—and begin the process of working to meet the challenges set out by this resolution so that we can be even more welcoming to all of our community, wherever they fall on the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Go to Yourself (Portion Lech L'chah)

The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.
                                                      -Thomas Merton

Every serious outward journey begins with an inward exploration, often involving a spiritual and/or emotional leap of faith. 

Thus the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, take Abraham—and us—both outward, into the world, and inward, into our selves.  God commands Abraham to leave his home and family, to set out for the unknown land of Canaan.  But as the Ishbitzer Rebbe notes, the divine command “Go forth” can also mean, quite literally, “Go to yourself.”  God is asking Abraham to make both a physical and a spiritual pilgrimage, to look deeply into his own soul and become his best and most authentic self.  It is not enough for the patriarch to leave behind the familiar comfort and confines of home—he must also shed the masks, fears, and defenses that get in the way of realizing his true calling.

For most of us, children of Abraham, this inward journey is terrifying.  It takes enormous trust and faith and courage to look into our own souls, because we know that when we do, we will find a great many things that we would prefer to avoid.  It is much easier—and very tempting—to just keep distracting ourselves with trivialities. 

Father Henri Nouwen writes of this challenge in an extraordinary essay on spirituality and solitude.  I think his words offer a beautiful commentary on the Ishbitzer’s teaching:

As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us.  This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. . . At first, silence might only frighten us.  In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections.  These voices are often noisy and boisterous.  They may even deafen us.  Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them and return to our entertainment.

But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.

These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love.  They night at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them.  However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far.  They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light.

This week, as we re-encounter God’s call to Abraham—and to us—ask yourself: how do I stay the course and get beyond the dark voices of fear, and so begin to hear and heed the voices of hope, forgiveness, and love?