Divre Harav – January 2011

It is easy to fall into the trap of negativity.  Recently, after several colleagues shared some of the more discouraging moments of their rabbinate, another colleague responded with some advice from a member of his congregation, an oncologist.  He said that it would be impossible for him to function if he spent too much emotional energy thinking about the majority of his patients who don’t survive. He focuses on the ten percent or so who make a full recovery.

I’m thinking about this now, as our country is welcoming to Washington DC a new set of Representatives and Senators, most of whom gained office because of a general sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo — the pace of recovery from the economic downturn, and a perceived, if not actual, lack of action addressing the high rate of unemployment.

Our politicians talk about reaching across the aisle and working together towards a common goal, but when a compromise is made, many to the left and the right accuse the moderate centrists of selling out to the other side and betraying the values and principles of their party.

I’m thinking about Representative Justin Amash, who has some pretty big shoes to fill as he takes the seat once held by Vern Ehlers, Paul Wolpe and Gerald Ford (although in his day it was the fifth, rather than the third, congressional district).  Some in the Jewish community are concerned that Mr. Amash’s Palestinian roots might affect his support for Israel.  It is in in our interest, however, as Jews, supporters of Israel, and residents of the third congressional district, to cultivate a good relationship with Mr. Amash.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a non-partisan organization devoted to strengthen the United State’s relationship with Israel.  They work with every member of congress, regardless of party affiliation.  They educate on issues relating to the security and development of Israel and encourage visits to Israel.

They understand that antagonizing our elected officials is not a good way to move them to our side.  Rather, like good parenting, it is more effective to focus on the positive, to praise the successes rather than condemn the failures.

As we welcome the 112th Congress to Washington DC, let us resolve to focus on the successes, not the failures.  Let us be slow to condemn, and quick to praise.  Let us not demonize the opposition.  Let us stick to our principles, but respect those who adhere to a conflicting set of principles.  As the Talmud teaches about the academies of Shammai and Hillel, Hillel was honored and praised for teaching the opinions of Shammai before he taught his own.  Let us be like Hillel, embracing the person on the other side of the aisle with love, rather than casting him out with suspicion.

Asara B’Tevet – The Fast of the 10th of Tevet

The minor fast day of Asara B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, is observed tomorrow.  Minor fasts are those observed from sunrise to dark, rather than from sunset to dark the next day.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Asara B’Tevet is the shortest fast of the year.  If you wake up before sunrise, you can eat a little breakfast or at least drink some water or coffee (since halakha discourages eating meals before morning prayers), and the fast ends a mere 11 or so hours later.

This year the fast is even about 1/2 hour shorter than normal, because it is observed on a Friday.  It is in fact the only fast day on the Jewish calendar that is observed on a Friday.  All other fast days, when they fall on a Friday, are observed on Thursday instead.  Because we don’t fast on Shabbat (Yes, Yom Kippur is a glaring exception), Asara B’Tevet ends at sunset rather than at full darkness as other fast days.

Asara B’Tevet is one of the three yearly fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  On the 10th of Tevet, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar began his siege against the city, as described in 2 Kings 25:

“And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.”  (2 Kings 25.1–3 JPS)

Judaism is sometimes summarized as a series of celebrations commemorating the following circumstance:  “They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.”  Periodically, however, it is worth stepping back from satiating our bodies to contemplate how the dark moments of our history affect our souls.  The absence of the Temple in Judaism has become a symbol of living in an incomplete and unredeemed world, a world in which we are waiting for a messianic figure to usher the world into a new age of peace and security, in which God’s presence will make itself known and thereby transform every human heart with love.  May it be so.

Ayeka Reflections – Bringing God into Hanukah

From my friend Rabbi AriehBen David, who has created an organization called Ayeka.

Ayeka’s Mission
Ayeka is bringing God back to the conversation.
Ayeka provides an agenda-free, safe space to personally explore the question: How can I best fulfill the challenge of living in the Image of God – in my daily life, my relationships, my work and community, with the Jewish people and all of humanity.

I learned a very important lesson from my friend Stuart.

Stuart is part of a men’s Ayeka group in Atlanta. We go away on retreats once or twice a year. We hang out, barbeque, eat a lot, drink a lot of beer, and talk about how we can become our “best selves”. The last retreat was a bit unbelievable – a bunch of guys ruminating on how we can become more loving. Not exactly beating drums in the forest.

Last time when we were talking about acts that best reflect our living in the Image of God – Stuart shared that he tips parking lot attendants. He said “Look, they have a pretty boring job, locked up in a booth most of the day. When I’m paying for the parking I always tell the attendant – ‘Keep the change.’ The look of astonishment and his smile is worth a lot more than the 2 bucks it costs me.”

So a couple of weeks ago I was with my son Amichai when we exited a parking lot and I remembered Stuart’s custom. I told the parking lot guy, “Keep the change. Have a nice day.” For a moment – his eyes sparkled and his face lit up.

Connection to Hanukah?

Isn’t our custom on Hanuka a bit strange? We light a candle – and then we are prohibited from using or enjoying the light ! More than strange, it’s kind of ridiculous.

Do we cook food and then say that it is forbidden to eat the food?

Do we sew clothes and then say that it is forbidden to wear the clothes?

But this is precisely what happens on Hanukah. We light candles – and then after the blessings we add: “These candles are holy – kodesh hem – and it is forbidden for us to use their light.”

What’s the point? Why light a candle if we can’t use its light?

Because lighting Hanukah candles is not about the light – it’s about the lighting.

If the candles get blown out – we don’t have to relight them. Our mission has already been accomplished. We can’t control what ultimately will happen to the candle. And our lighting is not supposed to be self-serving. We light the candles, releasing the glow that was within them. The potential for light already existed in the candle. It just needed to be given a spark.

And that is precisely what we need to do for each other. Supply the spark. Not for our own benefit. Not to receive something.

On Hanukah, it’s about the lighting – and not about the benefit or what we may receive from the candle.

The Talmud compares a candle to a person’s soul. We’re not in control of what ultimately happens to another person’s soul.

We’re just here to “light it” and then it becomes holy – kodesh hu.

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Questions for Reflection

  • When have you last seen someone “light up” someone else’s soul?
  • Who has lit yours?
  • Who can you spark this Hanukah?