Sunday, November 28, 2010

Light One Candle

One of the great tragedies of life is that it is so much easier to destroy than to create. Just consider the World Trade Center. It took many years for a gigantic team of architects, engineers, and construction workers to build the Twin Towers—and just one horrific fall morning for a handful of terrorists to obliterate them. Relationships—whether between individuals or nations—work much the same way: years of slowly accrued trust can be brought to naught with a single act of betrayal. Entropy prevails; as the novelist Chinua Achebe notes, “Things fall apart.”

And yet. . . people still overwhelmingly choose life over death and good over evil, and things come together at least as much as they fall apart. Why is this? I believe the moral at the heart of human life is not the sad ease of destruction but the miraculous 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.

This miracle is at the center of the festival of Chanukah, which begins on Wednesday night. As the story goes, a single cruse of oil burned for eight nights, illuminating the re-dedicated Temple with its flame. Therefore, at the darkest time of the year—the new moon closest to the winter solstice—we re-commit ourselves to our Jewish calling to bring light to a darkening 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 secretly sustain 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?

Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Dan

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wrestling With God and Ourselves (Vayishlach)

Sometimes it is hard to pray.

Many of us struggle with the Hebrew, or with unfamiliar tunes. We may be distracted by random thoughts, or by conversations in the pews around us. Perhaps we are simply stressed out or exhausted. And then there is the matter of belief. God as literally described in the pages of the siddur and Torah may, at times, be difficult for us to accept and worship.

I have struggled with all of these challenges at various times, but when I read the commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, I discovered another-perhaps even more difficult-obstacle to praying with conviction.

Jacob famously grapples with an angel, who at daybreak blesses him with a new name, Yisrael or Israel-the One Who Wrestles with the Divine. But who is this mysterious adversary? Some say that it was the guardian angel of Jacob's estranged brother Esau. But the twelfth-century commentator Rashbam suggests that the angel is a reflection of Jacob's own inner nature, sent by God to prevent him from running away. Rashbam teaches, "The Holy One answers a person's prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his [or her] own opponent."

For Rashbam, the whole episode comes to teach us something about the essential nature of prayer: when offered with a whole heart, it entails a painful self-examination. To pray as true children of Israel is to wrestle with ourselves. Jacob encounters the angel because he resists the temptation to run from his faults and, instead, faces up to his shortcomings. This is the only kind of religious expression that enables us to grow. Good Jewish davvening isn't about mindlessly chanting a bunch of Hebrew words; it is about employing those words as shovels to dig deep into our own souls and then use the knowledge we gain to transform ourselves. For us, as for Jacob, real prayer entails seeing ourselves as we really are-and as we might yet hope to become.

We are Yisrael, or, in Art Waskow's profound translation, Godwrestlers. The Holy One calls us to truly search ourselves, to become our own opponents, and so to be worthy of the blessing and the name that is our inheritance.

In this season of diminishing daylight, may our prayers help us to shine a light inward, into the darkness of our own hearts and souls. By recognizing, living with, affirming and ultimately illuminating that darkness, may we grow in wisdom, compassion, and justice.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It Gets Better (Idaho Statesman column)

No one should be compelled to live a fearful, secretive life. This moral imperative is at the heart of the Jewish experience. Many times in our history, the oppression of the dominant culture and creed forced us to practice our faith covertly. Throughout the Middle Ages, when faced with the terrible choice of conversion or death, many Jews publicly embraced Christianity or Islam but continued to secretly observe Jewish traditions. In the year 1165, one of these “conversos” sent an inquiry to Moses Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish teacher of the age, asking whether he and others like him could still be considered part of the Jewish community.

Maimonides was uniquely qualified to respond. At the age of thirteen, he had fled Cordoba, Spain with his family when that city fell into the hands of the Almohads, a violent Islamic sect. Drawing on this experience in his “Epistle on Forced Conversion,” Maimonides expresses great compassion for the secret Jews, recognizing the cruel injustice that created their conundrum. At the same time, he concludes that his fellow Jews who are unable to practice their religion openly must seek a new place to live: “They should leave everything they have and travel day and night until finding a place where they can live openly as Jews.” To live in hiding and shame, as victims of others’ bigotry, is to be denied one’s full humanity.

I have been thinking of this difficult part of my people’s history—and Maimonides’ response to it—in the wake of this fall’s heartbreaking rash of suicides by gay young people. The roots of this tragedy run deep. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are often forced into hiding by the pervasive bigotry of our culture. And who can blame them? Nine out of ten LGBT kids have experienced serious harassment at school—so much so that more than one-third of LGBT youth have, at some point, attempted suicide. This is a national disgrace: our ignorance and hate is, literally, killing some of our best and brightest students. Alas, unlike the Jewish conversos of Maimonides’ time, these young people usually do not have the option of moving to a safer place. Furthermore, at least the secret Jews could count on the support of their own families; for many LGBT young people, this is not a given.

It is, therefore, our obligation to make the world safe for these youth wherever they live, starting here in our own community. For people from faith traditions that have known persecution, our own experience should inspire us to act. Having known the burden of living a fearful secret life, we have a sacred duty to see to it that others cease to suffer this fate. Check out the “It Gets Better Project,” which was created by writer Dan Savage as a way for supporters to tell LGBT youth that it does, indeed, get better. Then do your part to make it better, speaking out for and working to create a culture in which we are all respected for who we are.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My "I"--I Did Not Know It

Waking up from his dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth, Jacob declares in wonder: “Surely God is in this place, and I—I did not know it!” That proclamation, from this week’s portion, Va-yelech, is one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love the notion that God is always present, and our challenge is to open our eyes to the Divine, which so often hides in plain sight.

How do we do achieve this wakening to the presence of the Holy One? Dov Baer of Mezritch, a great Hasidic teacher shares a profound insight through a slight re-translation of the verse. He reads, “God is in this place, for my “I” (my ego) I did not know.” By way of explanation, he adds: “I shall teach you the best way to say Torah. You must cease to be aware of yourself. You must be nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is constantly saying within you. The moment you start hearing what you yourself are saying, you must stop.”

In other words, we can only experience the divine when we step out of our inhibiting self-consciousness. As soon as you think to yourself, “I am encountering the sacred,” the encounter inevitably ends. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers an illuminating analogy from the life of Rabbi Chaim of Krosno: R. Chaim once stopped with his students to watch a man dance on a rope strung high between two buildings. The rabbi became so absorbed in the spectacle that his followers asked him what he found so fascinating in such a frivolous circus performance. “This man,” he explained, “is risking his life, and I am not sure why. I am sure that while he is walking on the rope, he cannot be thinking that he is earning a hundred gulden; he cannot be thinking about the step he has just taken or the step he is going to take next; he cannot even be thinking about where he is; if he did, he would fall to his death. He must be utterly unaware of himself.”

Since most of us will never be tightrope walkers, we might consider: how do we bring ourselves to the point where we do not know our “I”, where our egos do not stand between us and God? Rabbi Kushner suggests that we throw ourselves so fully into a sacred activity that we lose ourselves—in study, in prayer, or in acts of kindness and justice. Think about a time you have been in that state, utterly lacking self-consciousness. Maybe you experienced it while exercising, or listening to music, or marveling at the beauty of the natural world. It is, of course, impossible to remain in this state of ego-emptiness for very long, but a few of these “Jacob moments” can provide the inspiration and vision that we need to sustain us through periods of more mundane existence.

This week, as we occupy ourselves with this amazing story of Jacob’s encounter with the Holy One, try to find ways to make yourself “nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is saying to you.” See if, even for a moment or two, you might waken your heart to the miraculous presence of God in an unexpected place.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Willing and Waiting (portion Toldot)

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.” Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of God’s prophecy to her, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born. This dynamic divides the family and comes to a head many years later, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his hairy older brother. Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy even before the boys were born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception? Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of faith?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues this line: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God? . . The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” We strive mightily to determine our fate, to shape every detail in the course of our lives. I have wrestled with this challenge a great deal, personally and professionally. My first inclination is almost always to try to assert control over my circumstances. But as I grow older, I continue to learn that sometimes I can only gain what I desire by learning to let it go—to muster the patience to let God’s intentions blossom in their own time.