Adar and the Fight Against Evil

Image: A figure in a Venice Carnival mask. With his three-cornered hat, he could be the villain Haman!  (xxxmax/Pixabay.)

I was born in the month of Adar. About 20 years ago I decided that I wanted a new last name to mark a new chapter in my life.  It seemed logical to choose “Adar,” since it was the month in which I was born. However, a famous line from the Talmud gave me pause.

 משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

When Adar enters, joy increases.  — Taanit 29a

I resolved that if I was going to take the name Adar as my own, I had to take this famous teaching about the month of Adar very seriously. I needed to live life in such a way to affirm and not contradict it.  A line from the Mishnah has been my guide in this matter:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”

I loved the fact that the speaker in this case was grumpy old Shammai. He understood that it was no easy thing to greet everyone cheerfully every day. However, if he could do it, then I could certainly try to learn this mitzvah.

But Adar is not always a joyful month. This Adar, Adar 5778, began with a tragedy: a young man took an assault weapon and killed 17 people in Florida. Many of them were Jews, for whom Adar is supposedly a “joyful” and “lucky” month. Unfortunately, Feb 14 and the month of Adar will never again be a time of joy for their families.

24 years ago, in Adar 5754, a Jewish physician and IDF reservist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. He murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and wounded 125 others. His actions set off a wave of violence in the West Bank. Mainstream rabbis and politicians condemned his actions, and the State of Israel took steps to see to it that in future Muslims and Jews could both pray in peace at the holy site.

I was still very new to Talmud study when I changed my name. I knew the saying, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but I did not know the context of the saying. It is an important principle of text study to pay attention to context, never more so than in this case. 

As you can see above, the line appears in Taanit, “Fasts,” the volume of Talmud having to do with days of fasting. If you look at the page on which the line about Adar appears, you will see that it comes only at the bottom of the page. What preceded it is a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people during the month of Av. The line about Adar is almost an afterthought, mentioned in contrast to the horrors mentioned before it.

There is nothing magic about the month of Adar. It has the reputation of being “lucky” and “happy,” mostly from the association with Purim, but in fact bad things happen in Adar, too. So why talk about Adar as a time of joy? Is it just superstition?

Adar and Purim are a reminder that we are not helpless in the face of tragedy. In Esther, the Jews fought back and survived. The ninth chapter of Esther is not a pretty story – the Jews fought back hard and killed a lot of Persians. That chapter is there to remind us that fighting back is not a happy fantasy; it is mostly an ugly necessity.

The rabbis insist (at the beginning of tractate Megillah) that we must, must, must read the story every year because they wanted us to remember to stand up for ourselves in the face of evil. They wanted us to realize that Purim wasn’t a party; it was a struggle against evil, and it cost a terrible price.

This Adar, this Purim, I encourage us all to think about how we will fight back against the wave of school shootings over the past 20 years (Columbine was in April, 1999.)  We are commanded in Leviticus:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. – Leviticus 19:16

Many, many innocent children have died or been maimed by these shootings, and it is long past time that we began fighting back against them. Whatever our opinions about the Second Amendment, surely we can agree that these shootings must stop.

  • If you believe that NRA lobbyists are to blame, demand that your lawmaker stop taking contributions from the NRA.
  • If you believe that better security in the schools is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist that funds be allocated for security measures.
  • If you believe that better mental health care is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist on free mental health care for anyone who needs it.
  • If you think the above three are not good ideas, ask yourself: what am I going to do?

If you want to make a public commitment to doing something in particular, you can use the Comments section to do so.

And don’t forget the words of Shammai: “say little and do much” – talk is cheap.  Insist on more than talk from public officials. We must insist on doing more than talking inside our circles of agreement: we must call, we must write, we must vote, we must show up to make our point. Social media is a means, not an end to action.

Purim is not just a children’s party. Listen to its call and take action!  Take action so that in future there might be joy.

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Tu B’Shevat is Coming!

Image: A fruit tree in midwinter, with a few dried leaves clinging. (Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat (TOO beh-SHVAT) is coming, starting at sundown on January 30, 2018.  Look around you: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere the trees have prepared for the New Year of the Trees by dropping their old leaves and playing dead.

If you look even more closely you may see that there are the tiniest beginnings of buds on the tips of those bare branches. Ha! It isn’t dead – it is preparing to leaf out.

To learn more about the holiday, Tu B’Shevat, read Tu B’Shevat for Beginners and Four New Years Every Year?

What if anything are you doing for Tu B’Shevat? A seder? A tree-planting? Gardening routines and rituals?  Whatever you do, I hope that you are healthy and that any new beginnings in your life bear lovely fruit!

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 2017

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.