It’s Kislev!

Image: A chanukiah (menorah) lit for the final night of Chanukah. Photo by kevindvt/pixabay.

I missed the first of the month, so I can’t say, “Rosh Chodesh Tov!” but it’s not too late to remind you that the last two days were Rosh Chodesh Kislev.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah.

The name “Kislev” (KEES-lev) comes from the Akkadian word kislimu, which means “thickened.” Since it’s a month in which rains come to the Middle East, perhaps it’s a reference to the mud that come with heavy rain. The Akkadians were an early civilization in Mesopotamia, and much of the modern-day Jewish Calendar comes from Mesopotamia.

Why Mesopotamia? Because that’s where our ancestors were exiled after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. There was an earlier calendar, with its New Year in the month of Nisan in the springtime; remnants of that calendar may still be found in the Torah, which speaks of Nisan as “the first month.”

This month we remember a struggle between the Maccabees and the Hellenizers that took place in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era.)  For that story, check out the summary in MyJewishLearning.com.

 

Two Rabbis in a Parking Lot

Image: Rabbi Suzanne Singer and I took a very awkward selfie while we watched over the polling place for Election Protection. 11/8/2016

I was all set to write an elegiac post about my day working at the polls in Georgia. I spent the day sitting in parking lots, 150 feet from polling places, smiling and watching for people who were distressed.  My first shift was at a place where things ran properly and there wasn’t a lot to do (which is the best possible scenario.) At the second place, in the evening, I was helping at a poll where there were some small issues, but everything was resolved. There was beauty in the sight on so many people, rich and poor, brown and white, educated and not, each completely equal in that moment of casting their vote.

I met some wonderful people: pastors in Macon, folks who drove down from Atlanta to help, rabbis from all over the country. I forgot to bring business cards, so we exchanged emails so that we could stay in touch.

Then I drove off, to this hotel just south of Atlanta, because I have an early flight. I watched the election returns in this hotel room.

I spent the day with one America: a diverse group of people who banded together to protect the rights of citizens. I’m a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi, a woman, and I’m white. I chatted over lunch with a white Christian pastor and an African American Christian pastor, and we made friends. We don’t agree about everything (we found a few of those things while we were chatting) but we can work together despite the differences.

Then tonight I saw another America: an America that chose to elect a man for President who talks about rounding up Muslims, who has been endorsed by the KKK, who has breathed new life into white supremacist organizations. He gave speeches in which he dog-whistled anti-Semitic tropes. I don’t think he actually believes many of the horrible things he said to get elected, but he appealed to the lowest impulses of my fellow citizens and they chose him.

I commit to reaching out: reaching out to all the people I know who will be panicked about this election. I’ve already sent notes to Muslim friends, to some transgender friends, to others I know who are feeling vulnerable. I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but I know that we will need one another.

 

Georgia on My Mind, Pt2

Image: A landscape just off I-75 south of Atlanta. Photo by Ruth Adar, 11/7/2016

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Macon, Georgia. As soon as I finish this, I’m off to bed, because tomorrow is Election Day and a good volunteer nonpartisan poll monitor gets her beauty sleep!

I’ve been through training and orientation and meditations and prayers with other rabbis. I have wonderful support from the folks at home, especially from Linda.

Two old friends were kind enough to host me for teaching my online class Sunday afternoon. That was a first: I’ve never taught it “on the road” before.  I was afraid that if I waited to travel on Monday, I might arrive so stiff and pretzelly that I’d be useless at the polls. But never fear: all is well. I’m as limber as I usually am, which is not very, but it will do.

One unexpected pleasure: the autumn colors are still in the trees. They are past their peak, but I haven’t seen these hills in the fall in so long that I think they’re beautiful.

I hope that tomorrow is peaceful. I rather doubt it, but we can always hope, right? I think of the vote as a sacred right, and I want everyone to have theirs. It’s only fair.

[For an explanation of what I’m doing in Georgia, and why Jews regard voting rights as sacred, read Georgia on My Mind, posted last week.]

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.

 

 

Mental Illness in the Torah

Image: Painting of David and Saul, Franco-Flemish School, unknown Master, 19th century. Public Domain. Several characters in the Bible may have suffered from mental illness, but King Saul is one of the most dramatic depictions.

In many ways we seem to still be in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness. Treatments are far from perfect, access to treatment is often difficult, and most of all, the stigma attached to mental illness is cruel. A Washington Post article, Halloween Attractions Use Mental Illness to Scare Us, reflects a casual cruelty about mental illness that would be completely unacceptable relative to physical illnesses such as cancer or polio.

Mental illness is mentioned in the Torah. Like physical illness, it was understood to be either a misfortune or a punishment from God. It is listed among the curses in Deuteronomy 28:

Thus if you will not listen to the voice of the Eternal you God, to observe to do all God’s commandments and God’s statutes which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you… (Deut 28:15)

The Eternal will strike you with madness, and blindness and astonishment of heart and you will grope at noonday as the blind grope in darkness. You will not make your ways prosperously. You will be oppressed and robbed always, and there will be none to save you. (Deut 28:28-29)

While on the surface this might be an upsetting passage, let’s look below its surface meaning for two interesting things. The first is that Deuteronomy 28 refers to boils, scabs, tuberculosis, fevers and inflammation in precisely the same way it refers to shigayon, usually translated “madness.” There is a fundamental understanding of illness as illness, whether it is physical or mental.

The second is that verses 28 and 29 offer a striking description of the ravages of mental illness.  Lev in Biblical Hebrew is not just the “heart” – it is more accurately described as the seat of thought and emotion, what we moderns refer to as “mind.” I offer a paraphrase in modern English for verses 28-29:

The Eternal will strike you with mental illness, so that your mind will not work properly. You will be unsure of your perceptions, and your sleep cycles will be disrupted. You will find it hard to find employment. You will be vulnerable to criminals and exploitation, and it will be difficult to find help.

The author of Deuteronomy had a remarkable knowledge of the experience of mental illness. However you understand authorship of the book (divine dictation, divine inspiration or human authorship) it shows a striking familiarity with the phenomenon.

Today we no longer understand physical illness to be evidence of sin, and there is no reason to see mental illness in that way, either. The mentally ill are not at fault, and deserve the same compassion we give any other person afflicted with illness. Both physical and mental illness are curses upon humanity, but much of the misery they cause can be alleviated with human compassion.

What can we learn about mental illness from Torah? First, we can learn that it has always been with us. Thousands of years ago, it was not all that different than it is today. Secondly, we can learn that it is in fact the equivalent of physical illness: it threatens life and livelihood.

What has changed from Biblical times is that we are aware that we are the hands of God in this world. It is up to us to use our heads and our hearts to relieve the suffering of the afflicted, with the employment of science and the balm of compassion.

How To Chanukah

Image: Lighting the first candle on the 1st night of Chanukah. Photo by Rabbi Adar.

Chanukah begins this year (2016) at sundown on December 24.

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?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!

 

We Have Seen This Before

And if a stranger live with you in your land, you will not do him wrong. – Leviticus 19:33

Possibly the most frequently repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible is “welcome the stranger.” One of my colleagues, Rabbi Michael Latz, finds it in some form in 36 different places. It is often bolstered with the logic, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (e.g. Leviticus 19:34) which brings to mind Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows.” (Shabbat 31a)

Today the news is full of suspicion for the Syrian refugees fleeing the disaster of Daesh (aka ISIS, but follow that link to find out why I am not going to call them “Islamic State” anymore.) One of the men who murdered hostages in the Bataclan Theater in Paris carried a Syrian passport and now the cry has gone up: “Don’t take them in, they may be terrorists!”

In places connected to Syria by land masses or the Mediterranean, I can understand the fear. But here in the United States, the border for Syrian travelers is well-defined: it’s a secure area in airports and seaports, and no one gets through unless U.S. Customs and Border Security says they get through. Refugees are subjected to special screening by various offices of several different departments of the government, any of which can turn them down. The process takes 18-24 months; it’s no quickie. If you want to learn more about it, you can do so here.

There was a time in the past when people were desperately trying to flee an evil regime, and we Americans took it upon ourselves to see them all as undesirables: wrong religion, possibly spies, maybe saboteurs! Our ports were firmly closed to them. We actually turned away whole shiploads of them: refugees not wanted.

It emerged, after the war, that the Nazis had manipulated the whole thing: they sent agents to Cuba to aggravate antisemitic feeling there and in the U.S., and spread rumors that some of the refugees were “a criminal element.” Eventually the ship returned to Germany, and the refugees went to the camps, most of them, to their deaths.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Check thoroughly everyone who applies for refugee status, by all means, but do not allow Daesh or any other evil regime to manipulate U.S. policy.

And remember, my fellow Jews: we were once strangers fleeing the land of Egypt.

Image: “Women and children Syrian refugees at the Budapest Keleti railway station” taken by Mystslav Chernov. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.