The Most Beautiful Sukkah of All

Image: A wooden door with a rusty padlock. (Pixabay)

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he nailed a roof on the sukkah to keep it secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

The building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook her head, and visited Yacov’s house. She saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the wooden roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” she asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. She saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. She saw the pallet on the floor. She looked up at the roof.

She sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with a lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my friend, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep things forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what will come tomorrow. Let me ask you this: What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.

Note: I have published this story in a slightly different form in years past. 

Candlelight: Seize the moment!

Image: The last candle hung on for three minutes after the rest.

Chanukah is almost over.

When the whole chanukiah is blazing it is a wonderful sight. When several people are over it’s even more amazing – my dining room table aglow!

Once the candles are lit, we play games or talk or just hang out. Halakhicly speaking, we aren’t supposed to do any work by the light of the Chanukah candles. The reality that we may mess up and do something improper is the real reason for the shamash or helper candle. It’s nice to light with it, but its real function is to provide additional light to cover any action that isn’t strictly play.

The candles don’t last long. Chanukah candles come in all sizes, but most of them are designed to burn quickly. We light them, we play, and before we know it, they are out.

Seems to me that one of the lessons of the chanukiah is that every moment in life is a brief moment. If we don’t pay attention to the candles, they will be gone. If we don’t pay attention to the bright things in our lives, we’ll miss them altogether.

Linda and I have a tendency to sit and stare at the candles while they are lit. We chat about whatever is on our minds, but as the candles burn down, we begin to speculate on which will last longer. We watch the little candles as they melt, and as the wax runs all over the foil we put underneath, I begin to wonder uneasily if there are any holes in it. Then I bring my mind back to the here and now: Candles! They don’t last long. Don’t waste them worrying about something that can’t be fixed now.

Life is like that. Moments are here, then they pass. When my children were tiny, the most important lesson they taught me was that nothing lasts: the good things are sooner or later outgrown, and so are the not-so-good things. Colic didn’t last forever. Neither did the babbling I loved so much.

How has your Chanukah been this year? Did the candles bring you any lessons you care to share?

Holiday Blues?

Image: Shiny blue ornaments surround a small white tea light.

Reader Teme reminded me that a lot of people are suffering from holiday blues.

Holiday Blues happen to both Christians and Jews. I don’t know if they happen to Hindus and to Muslims but I suspect they do, because they’re really just an outgrowth of human nature.

Holidays come with many associations, baggage along for the ride. We have memories of actual holidays past and a lot of programming for how holidays ought to be.

Good holiday memories can be a blessing to treasure forever, but if they contrast sharply to our current situation, they can be painful. Remembering good times with a loved one is more complicated after that loved one is gone.

Bad holiday memories (the year Aunt So-and-so said she didn’t like her present, the year an obnoxious cousin made everyone cry, the creepy guy under the mistletoe, the year everything went wrong) can spill into the present moment. It’s reasonable that gift-giving might be fraught after Aunt So was nasty, or that the taste of latkes brings back memories of the obnoxious cousin.

Expectations about a holiday can be particularly difficult. When the bar is set too high, there’s no way actual experience will measure up. If you are convinced that “every normal family has a beautiful Chanukah with tiny, perfect gifts and no grease fires in the kitchen, no crying babies, nothing but cozy warmth” then of course your Chanukah will be a disappointment. Same for Christmas: if it’s supposed to be “the most magical day of the year” you are set up for failure. When cranky old Uncle Ned starts in about politics, or the kids start fighting over a toy, or the special food flops, then yeah, it’s depressing.

And even more so, if you are alone for the holiday, or childless again this year, or this year there isn’t money for special anything – the holidays can be painful.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the holiday blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be pretty good.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Hate Christmas carols? Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in December. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation. For Jews, services are a respite from the relentless Christmas message in December.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. What else? I’m sure readers can suggest some other treatments for the Holiday Blues. What works for you?

I’m sorry you have the Holiday Blues. I am having a nice Chanukah this year, but I have had my years when Christmas or Chanukah or Passover or the High Holy Days have worked on my last nerve. The feelings are real. I hope that something on this list helps.

 

Re-Dedicating the Small Sanctuary

Image:  During Chanukah 2015, the Intro class lit chanukiot together. This year I forgot to take pictures.

My house sits in a mostly Christian neighborhood, surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. I love my neighbors’ lights, and look forward to them every year. My house, though, is different: there are no Christmas decorations, only a little electric chanukiah winking in the window by the front door.

Every Chanukah I rededicate my home to be a mikdash me-at, a little sanctuary of the God of Israel.

  • Is it safe for visitors? Well-lit outside?
  • Is it safe for all: how do we speak to and treat each other here?
  • Does it look like a Jewish home? Are there things that shouldn’t be here?
  • Are people who work here compensated fairly?
  • Do I practice hacnasat orchim, hospitality to guests?
  • What can I do to make it more of a place of Torah?

Last night I had twelve students over for Shabbat dinner. It was a big celebration for me.

When I got sick last year, I cancelled such a gathering because I didn’t have the strength to do it. Since then, the thought of cleaning and cooking, then cleaning again was completely overwhelming. But two weeks ago a student asked me shyly: “Could I come see how you do Shabbat dinner sometime?” I said, “Sure!” and emailed the class.

I have rededicated my home, and my self, to hospitality. As with last night, it will need to be modest: potlucks, instead of me cooking everything. I asked for and got help with set up and clean up. Even with all the delegation, I was a mess today – but a happy mess, because the mitzvah of hospitality is dear to my heart.

As I told my guests, I hope that every one of them hosts a Shabbat dinner for friends or family sometime soon. I pointed out my less-than-stellar housekeeping and said, “If I can have people over when things are not perfect, you can too.” Hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests) is an important way to build Jewish community, one relationship at a time.

To whom or what are you rededicating yourself this week? Chanukah is about memory, but it is also about dedicating ourselves in the here and now, meeting the challenges of being Jewish in the world.

Just Say “No” to “Chris-muck-kah!”

Image: Santa, a menorah, and “Say NO to Chrismukkah” in red letters.

Once upon a time, Elijah hosted a potluck supper. He asked all the guests to bring a dish from their own tradition.

  • Sarah brought sufganiot, those fabulous jelly donuts that Israelis eat at Chanukah.
  • Mike brought Irish Soda Bread.
  • Jacob brought latkes with applesauce and sour cream.
  • Louise brought a Christmas ham.
  • Ruth brought hush puppies and fish, fried in oil.
  • Jessie brought cranberry sauce.
  • Erin brought sugar cookies with red and green icing.
  • Aaron brought green bean salad, from his mom’s recipe.

As each of them arrived, Elijah welcomed them and had them put the dishes on the dining room table. Then, when everyone was there, he uncovered a big food processor and began to dump all the food into it, whirling it together into a paste.

The guests were horrified. The delicious food they’d brought was turned into muck! What a horrible thing to do!

That’s how I feel about “Chrismukkah” – it turns delightful holidays into “muk.” Christmas is beautiful on its own. Chanukah is beautiful on its own. Mixing them together is dreadful, like blendering ham with sugar cookies and latkes.

Chanukah is about the rededication of Jews to Judaism. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus – or in “secular Christmas” about warmth and giving. They are two separate holidays that truly don’t go together.

Enjoy the lights! Enjoy each other’s holidays! But keep them separate, so we can still taste them both.

 

Meditation before Chanukah

Image: On the first night of Chanukah, only two candles will be lit. (Photo: Scazon, some rights reserved.)

Chanukah starts in the dark.

Winter is upon the Northern hemisphere. The days shrink, the nights grow longer. It seems as if winter will go on forever. It seems as if we will be forever in the dark.

In one week, Chanukah will come, and we will light candles.

We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. But on the first night, the two seem so small, twinkling above an almost-empty menorah.

This year, a lot of us have been feeling alone, worried about the future, horrified by too much in the present. White supremacy is on the rise, our Muslim neighbors have been threatened, and many of us have personally experienced a rise in anti-Semitic activity both on- and off-line. National security is a concern as… ok, enough of that. You know what I mean.

Every year those little Chanukah candles inspire me, but never so much as they will this year. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize, they simply shine.

Notice that there is never a time when a candle is completely alone – even tonight, first night, the shamash candle, is also there to serve. Just as the shamash has to be lit on the first night, we have to be there for one another.

Good people stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They hold hands in the dark; they sing. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.

Let us all be brave as these candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter how few shine with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.

Jews in December: 12 Survival Tips

Image: Blessing the Shabbat candles. (Photo by Linda Burnett.)

For Jews in North America, December can a challenging month. Here are some tips for maintaining your Jewish equilibrium amongst the cacophany of Jingle Bells:

DO keep Shabbat. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” said Ahad HaAm, one of the wisest of the early Zionists. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, try tasting Shabbat for a month and see what happens in your life.

DO celebrate Chanukah. Yes, it is a minor feast, but it is a celebration of dedication to Jewishness, exactly what we need in the Christmas season. The modest little lights of Chanukah remind us that it’s worth the effort to maintain our identity as Jews.

DO make your home a sanctuary. Home can be Jewish space where other traditions don’t intrude. Read 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home for ideas on how to do that.

DO have clear and loving  boundaries in your interfaith home. Exactly what those boundaries are is up to you and your beloved, but clear communication about them can save a lot of pain. If you are already in a place of pain about it, get a counselor to help you sort things out. Check out Interfaith Challenge: When December Isn’t Wonderful for some ideas.

DO reach out to and support other Jews. December is a challenge for most of us. Invite people for Shabbat, or for a little Chanukah gathering. Set up a movie date for Dec 25. Remember that other non-Christians may be feeling it too; check in with Buddhist, Muslim and agnostic friends for some non-Christmas socializing.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that little David or Sarah is Jewish, and what your boundaries are on Christmas-themed activities, ideally before these things become an issue. Combine with other Jewish parents if there are any to offer to bring a Chanukah lesson to school, etc.

DON’T feel guilty that your children “don’t get Christmas.” Use these tips (especially Shabbat!) to give them the rich and sustaining tradition that is their birthright. Christmas is once a year. A strong Jewish identity is a treasure year-round and for life.

DO keep consumption under control.  This is the season for marketing and partying. Don’t overbuy, overeat, or over-consume, no matter what the culture at large is pushing you to do. If you have children and the grandparents are going overboard with presents, or God forbid in a competition, share A Tale of Two Grandmothers with them.

DO give yourself permission to enjoy. Christmas isn’t our holiday, but perhaps you enjoy the decorations, or the lights, or the music. I love my neighbors’ light displays. Enjoying them as I drive by doesn’t make me a traitor to Judaism. They can enjoy the light of my chanukiah, too.

DON’T spend time in retail space unless it’s required. Cocoon at home. Add a new mitzvah to your life. Watch Jewish movies. Find a new Jewish blog or two. Enjoy a hobby. Exercise. Enjoy your family.

If you work in retail, you have my sympathy!

DO have a reply ready for “Merry Christmas.” My favorite reply is, “I’ll take a happy Chanukah and wish YOU a Merry Christmas.” If you have a stock reply on hand, then you can deal with it “on automatic.”

DON’T take every mention of Christmas personally. A great deal of of the “Merry Christmas” we get is highly IM-personal, which is irritating, but if I got mad every time I heard it, I would have to double my blood pressure meds. Good self care sometimes means “let it go.”

This post appeared a few years ago in a slightly different form.

 

 

How To Chanukah / Hanukkah / Chanuka

Image: A chanukiah, or menorah, on Night #4 of Chanukah. Art by Rabbi Adar.

If you are worried about spelling Chanukah properly, don’t. All the transliterations in the title of this post are fine – in fact, anything that will communicate the Hebrew word for “Dedication” works fine.

Here’s the proper spelling of the word:

HebrewHanukkah

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com.  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

5th Night: Dedication

Image: Menorah with 5 candles lit, by Robert Couse-Baker, some rights reserved

Time is growing short. There are only three unlit candles on the menorah tonight.

To whom shall I dedicate myself this Chanukah?

Once upon a time, and still in too many places, Jews are despised among all the peoples of the earth. Nevertheless our Torah is emphatic that we must love the stranger, and be fair with the person who is not like us.

This command, like many of the mitzvot in Torah, runs counter to human nature. It is natural for us to love those like ourselves. It is easiest to hate and mistreat those who are different. We who have suffered from difference ourselves know it all too well.

For the past several weeks I have read article after article that reminded me of this mitzvah. In one such story, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was attacked in Seattle at a university. If you google “anti-Muslim violence,” you will see many such articles.

As a feminist and as a Jew, I am horrified by this news, but I am not surprised. After all, hijabi women (women who wear head coverings) are noticeable in a way Muslim men are not. It probably doesn’t help that photos of one of the San Bernardino murderers show her wearing hijab. However, Westboro Baptist Church members wear crosses and carry crosses and we manage to distinguish between them and Christians who mean us no harm.

I believe it is important for each of us to think about what we will do when we see an act of violence or harassment against a fellow human being. Sofia Ali-Kahn writes that there are things we can do to support Muslim women. Here are her suggestions, paraphrased a bit:

  1. If you see a someone being harrassed, intervene or call for help.
  2. On public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Alternatively, simply make friendly small talk.
  3. If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in with her. Tell her that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for her.
  4. Teach your children. Tell them how you feel about this issue, and what to do if they see bullying.
  5. Call out hate speech. This is most important when you are among people who may not know a Muslim, who may feel that since no Muslim is around, hateful speech about them is OK.
  6. Learn about Islam, and organize such learning.
  7. Write letters to the editor and Op-Eds.
  8. Call your elected officials, and encourage them to speak out against hate speech in all its forms.
  9. Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia. Speak up. Be public about your support for religious freedom.
  10. Engage the Muslims in your life. Learn to feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

There have been times, and still are times, when Jews feel isolated in the world, when people have not spoken up for us. We know what it feels like to be anxious and wary, afraid of what cruelty may come at us out of nowhere.

Torah calls us to treat the person we do not know with kindness. The Chanukah story reminds us that we have been persecuted for our difference. Let us stand with our neighbors against the voices of darkness. Let us light the fifth candle and dedicate ourselves to love.

This is an update of an earlier post.

 

Remember What Was Good?

Image: A bride and groom. (Photo by Linda Burnett)

Rabbi Nehuniah ben Haqanah used to recite a short Prayer when he entered the study hall and when he exited. They said to him, “What is the nature of this Prayer?” He said to them, “When I enter, I pray that I will cause no offense. And when I exit, I give thanks for my portion.” – Yerushalmi Berakhot 33a, Ch 4:2.

Chanukah Sameach!

We are almost at the end of 2016. Usually that means that the media is full of “The Year Just Past” and such – but I’ve noticed that a lot of folks don’t have much stomach for that this year.

Then a friend of mine, Maxine, left a remarkable message on Facebook. She asked, “What GOOD things happened to you in the past year?” And it brought me up short.

What I learned from Maxine’s post was that I had become focused on things I’m not happy about, and that the simple act of making a list of the things that had gone well or that were not bad changed my feelings dramatically. I feel much better, and better equipped to face the year ahead. It reminded me of Rabbi Nehuniah ben Haqanah’s wise practice of giving thanks for his portion (for the things making up his life) every day on exiting the hall of study.

A lot of good things happened to me in the past year. Just to name a few:

  1. Our younger son, Jim, got married. He married a wonderful young woman that we love very much. I feel like I’ve suddenly got a daughter, and their happiness is infectious. June 18 will always count as a good day for our family.
  2. And, as many of you have been following, my brother Albert survived a terrible accident. He is still fighting his way through rehab. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that has set him back in many ways, and from which recovery is slow and difficult. His story is not a feel-good “Hallmark Movie” but it is a story of skillful medical care, amazing nursing care, and above all, his courage, and the courage of his wife and children. He remains in my prayers.
  3. And a small thing: my online Introduction to the Jewish Experience class grew. We had our first class over 20 members, and our first class with a member from outside North America. We just finished the Fall term, and all of them are learning well. It’s not a big success (no one is donating big bucks to Lehrhaus to support my work, or giving me a big award!) – just the sort of little quiet success that still gives me great satisfaction.

OK, those are my three things. Now I am going to invite each of you to think back over the past year to find something good. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something good, and I hope you will share it with the rest of us via the comments.

Most of all, I hope that it transforms your experience as the same exercise transformed mine.  I wish you a Chanukah of blessing and light!