Chanukah 2021: Lights in the Darkness

Image: The rabbi, on her scooter, enjoying the Chanukah lights outside her house. Yes, she knows this is a nontraditional display.

Chanukah arrives on the 25th of Kislev as always — this year, that’s Sunday evening, November 28, 2021.

I don’t know about you, but I approach this holiday season feeling rather beat-up and disillusioned. This has been a year of personal, medical and professional crises for me, set against the backdrop of general political unrest, rising antisemitism, climate change, and pandemic. Several individuals and institutions have disappointed me deeply and personally.

So why on earth would I want to bother with a minor holiday like Chanukah? What’s the point?

Chanukah is one of the Jewish holidays I call “National Holy Days.” That is, they memorialize historical events with complicated legacies, events that temper the idealism of the Fall and Spring Holy Days.

Chanukah reminds us that in the second century BCE, the Maccabees won their war against the Selucid Empire only to find that the Temple was filthy. Greeks and Greek-minded Jews had rendered just about everything in the Temple precincts traifeh [ritually unfit.] The Hasmoneans cleaned it up, and rededicated it (hence the name Chanukah, meaning dedication.) Their joy was so great that they instituted an eight-day festival to remember the occasion.

(Yes, there’s another story about a cruze of oil. For more about the tensions between the two stories, look at Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays.)

Periodically the Jewish People disgrace ourselves with temptations from without and within. In the 2nd century BCE, we responded to Greek culture by dividing over it — the Maccabean war was not only a war against the Greeks, it was a civil war against Jews who admired the Greeks. We thought we cleaned up afterwards, only to find that the “pure” Hasmonean rulers were far from ideal, as well.

Welcome to imperfect humanity. All we can really do is dust ourselves off, clean up the mess, and rededicate ourselves to the project that is Torah. And that’s what I’m doing for the rest of 5782 — cleaning up the mess, and searching the tradition and my heart for genuine Torah.

A Mitzvah for Shmini Atzeret

Image: A laptop covered with post-it notes. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. Today is Shmini Atzeret, and then Jewish life will settle down for the quiet month of Cheshvan. Only one holiday, Sigd, twinkles at the far end of the month — otherwise it is quiet. It’s the longest such break in the Jewish Year, and it comes at a good time, because anyone involved in putting on all those celebrations is worn out.

Your clergy and staff at synagogue are exhausted from the past two years of Covid, Israel, political upheaval, rising antisemitism, and whatever has been going on locally in your community. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Notes, emails, silly homemade postcards– it’s all wonderful.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They often wonder who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

To the person who says, “Well, it’s their job!” I have one thing to say: no, it isn’t “just a job.” It’s a labor of love, and particularly for staff, it is often a very poorly paid job. For clergy, it is months of work informed by years of training, and it is often done in tandem with volunteers who are full of good ideas and enthusiasm that have to be coordinated into a manageable whole. It’s WORK.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I substituted for a colleague who was injured, so I had none of the preparations to do, just showed up to officiate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even at part-duties, it was a big job, and I appreciated their thanks very much. In fact, those notes gave me a boost I needed after a stressful summer of other work — something of which they had no inkling. They refreshed my rabbinate more than they will ever know.

The expression of gratitude is a mitzvah: it restores the soul of both the speaker and the recipient. We are at the official end of the High Holy Day cycle. If there was anything you liked about your High Holy Days, whether it was the services, or the way the signups worked, or the call that was returned after you left a message, or someone’s cooking — this is a great time to say, “Thank you.”

What, Another Jewish Holiday Already?

Image: A family picnicing in the park. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The High Holy Days are behind us.

One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue or in front of the computer screen, praying.  Yep, me too.

Sukkot is the perfect Jewish holiday for this year. The main idea is, get outdoors!

The good news is that this holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.

Or on the balcony.

Or on the roof.

You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.

Or — to keep things very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table.  Or a blanket on the grass. Don’t get too fussy and spoil the fun. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.

This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.

Maybe you can think of a friend who could also use a little outdoors time now.

The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.

The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.

Sukkot starts on the evening of Monday, September 20, 2021. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.

Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season. If it’s too hot outside, make some lemonade. If it’s too wet, stay inside by a window, or just get wet.

I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.

Prepare to enjoy yourself!

Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join me for Yom Kippur?

Image: Jewish Gateways Logo for High Holidays 2021. Colorful abstract.

I will officiate at online Yom Kippur services this year at Jewish Gateways. If you still need somewhere to attend, we would be glad to have you. For information, and to register, visit their High Holidays webpage. You must be registered to attend.

The schedule for Yom Kippur Services, all times Pacific:

Wednesday, September 15, 7:00-9:00pm, Erev Yom Kippur

Thursday, September 16, Yom Kippur Day                        

  • 9:00-9:45am: Yom Kippur Family Service for children under 9 and their families
  • 10:30am-12:30pm: Yom Kippur Morning Service
  • 1:00pm: Questions and Open Discussion with Jewish Gateways community members
  • 6:00-7:30pm: Yom Kippur Afternoon Services
    • 6:00-6:30pm: Healing Service
    • 6:30-7:00pm: Yizkor • Memorial Service
    • 7:00-7:30pm: Ne’ilah • Closing Service

G’mar chatimah tovah! (May you be sealed for goodness.)

Join Me for the High Holy Days?

Image: Brightly colored logo for Jewish Gateways‘ High Holidays 2021 Logo. A pomegranate is cupped in a blue arc like a hand. A rainbow surrounds.

L’shana tova! Happy New Year! The Jewish New Year of 5782 begins at sundown on Monday night, September 6, and continues until sundown September 7.

Normally I’m a “Jew in the Pew” for High Holy Days, but this year I am pinch-hitting for Rabbi Bridget Wynne, who is recovering from an accident last week. If you’d like to join me for online services with Jewish Gateways, the registration and information for that is available on their website.

For more information about the High Holy Days I recommend reading my article High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020. The dates have changed but the information is the same.

Other ways you may hear Jews refer to these days, all correct:

  • High Holidays
  • Days of Awe
  • Yamim Noraim (Hebrew) (ya-MEEM no-rah-EEM)
  • Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (ROSH ha-sha-NAH and YOM kee-POOR)
  • “High Hols” (very informal)
  • HHD’s (in tweets and other shorthand media)

Whatever you call them, I wish you a Good and Sweet New Year. May it bring you health, healing, light, and love.

L‘shana tova! Happy New Year!

FREE Passover classes at HaMaqom | The Place!

HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA is offering free online Passover classes and events over the coming month. Are you ready to learn? Ready to get ready? Worried about how you’re going to get into the mood for Passover this year? Interested in learning some new and interesting possibilities for enjoying the holiday? Help is one the way!

All events are free of charge, but you need to register in order to attend. To register for each event, use this link.

Passover 101 (Tuesday, March 9, 2021, 7-7:30 pm Pacific Time.

Passover, also known as Pesach or Chag HaAviv, celebrates the Israelites Exodus from Egypt and includes themes of liberation, redemption, and renewal. Join us to learn more about this holiday and its traditions in this interactive session with Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Bsisa 101: Celebrating the New Jewish month of Nissan with Libyan and Tunisian Jews (Tuesday March 16 7-7:30pm Pacific Time

The new Jewish month of Nissan brings with it themes of renewal and hope for prosperity and health, as Passover is just around the corner. Join Asher Grinner and Tamar Zaken as they share the home-based tradition of Bsisa, where family members gather to bless and be blessed, celebrating the season of renewal marked by Rosh Hodesh Nissan.

Come to the Seder Table (Thursday, March 18 7-8pm Pacific Time

At HaMaqom, we celebrate and lift up the diversity of our Jewish community and practice. Passover is the perfect time of year to showcase the ways different families celebrate this holiday of liberation and new beginnings. This event will feature 6 family seder traditions from HaMaqom and One Table community members and staff. Get ready for Passover with us!

Community Cafe: Stories of Liberation, Deliverance, Revelation, and Rebellion (Tuesday, March 23 5:30-6:45pm Pacific Time)

Stories connect us and add meaning and depth to our lives. Come to HaMaqom’s community cafe event, where you will hear inspiring, Passover-themed storytelling this Spring. This semester, HaMaqom’s Community Cafe participants workshopped true stories from their lives about liberation, resilience and other Passover themes.  Join us to hear these moving stories as our participants perform them for a live zoom audience.  

Mimouna 101: Moroccan Post Passover Celebration (Sunday April 4, 7-7:30pm Pacific Time)

Mimouna, a celebration that marks the end of Passover, is celebrated in Moroccan and North African Jewish communities. Mimouna includes themes of renewal, joy, coexistence, and inviting in neighbors. Join Ziva Trau as she shares her family Mimouna traditions, featuring special foods, music, and other rituals.

Passover @ The Place is generously sponsored by The Douglass-Pearlmutter Family, the Kabat Family, and Fred Isaac & Robin Reiner.

HaMaqom’s commitment to keeping our learning opportunities affordable and inclusive is a part of who we are and is only possible because of the generous support we receive from our wonderful community.

Spread the Light: Hanukkah 2020

Image: A lit chanukiah (esbeitz / Pixabay)

This Hanukkah is a special one: we’ve all been stuck with the horrors of pandemic for SO long that the pleasures of this little holiday are especially sweet. The pleasures add up to two things, sweetness and light. I’d like to offer you one thing to DO and one to NOT DO to increase the joy of this week.

To DO: Join me for the “Eight Days of Light & Learning” with HaMakom | The Place. HaMakom (formerly Lehrhaus Judaica) is where I grew up as a Jew: I took Intro there, I learned Hebrew there, and now I teach there. For Hanukkah we are offering a short program each night at 7pm (Pacific) with a little bit of learning, a little bit of light, and a little bit of silly happiness. It’s free to all, and I hope you will join us. All you have to do is follow the link above and register to get the Zoom link. (P.S. – I am teaching on Sunday night.)

To NOT DO: The darkness and confusion of conspiracy theories has been a plague upon us during the election and the coronavirus crisis. Please do your part by refusing to pass on far-out theories, even as something to laugh about. If something seems intriguing, check it out with Snopes.com or some other fact-checking site. Be skeptical, especially if the “news” excites you: that’s how these things spread.

Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Feast of Lights!

This time next year, we will hug our cousins and gather to celebrate. This year, we will gather online. Chag Hannukah sameach!

Thoughts for the 1st Night

Image: Menorah with two candles lit, on the first night. (Photo: NashvilleScene.com)

I love the first night of Chanukah. I love the bravery of the two little lights, the shamash (“helper”) candle and the 1st candle. The dark is so very dark, and those little lights shine brightly against it.

The world has felt like a dark night for so long. Whatever your political persuasion, surely the state of American democracy is distressing. The fact that we cannot even agree on the facts is terrifying. A frightening virus has completely disrupted our lives for nine months, and while a vaccine has been developed (a miracle in itself) the logistics of a just distribution of that vaccine is a daunting prospect. Over 290,000 lie dead from coronavirus in the United States.

Tonight I’m going to take comfort in two little candles. One lights, the other is lit. We never have one without the other. There is never a lone candle in the dark.

In some ways, the shamash is the “extra” candle. It isn’t counted, doesn’t get credit for its light. But it stands for all the helpers out there in the world, who spread the light to others, often without credit for what they do. This year it stands for the healthcare workers, the journalists, the delivery people, the “essential workers” who do their work in danger and often for low pay.

I will remind myself that none of us is ever a lone candle in the dark. There are always other lights, and I will focus my eyes on them as I read the news and make my way through social media.  Fred Rogers suggested that the best way to navigate a scary world is to “Look for the helpers.” I’m going to look for the people who are spreading the light.

Chag urim sameach – Happy holiday of lights!