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!

Prayer For Those In Isolation

Image: Person sitting alone with Coronavirus floating outside. (Tumisu / Pixabay)

Of all the cruelties of Covid-19, perhaps the most cruel thing is the isolation it imposes.

It isolates those who are hardest hit with the disease, when the best treatment available is a ventilator. For the patient to endure this treatment, they have to be sedated, and they are left without the comfort of human interaction, even with the strangers caring for them.

It isolates all those who are hospitalized with the disease, because everyone who enters the Covid-19 treatment environment is put at risk for the disease. Family and friends cannot follow, cannot visit in person. Only healthcare workers who tend the sick at a risk to their own lives can be allowed to be there.

It isolates all who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, because suddenly they have become not only a human being but also a vector of disease. They must isolate themselves completely from everyone, lest someone be infected.

It isolates those who are known contacts of the infected person, because the disease is so contagious that they have to sequester themselves lest they infect another person.

It isolates the vulnerable healthy, those with underlying conditions that put them at risk for the worst of Covid-19. Every human contact carries risk for them, so to whatever extent they can they must isolate themselves. Their isolation is necessary but often psychologically brutal. It is painful to go months without so much as the touch of a human hand or an in-person smile.

Covid-19 isolates everyone: those of us who hide from it, and those who are perceived as carriers. It even isolates the who don’t believe in it, because they are left stranded in a make-believe world that endangers them and the people they love.

Oh God, who created each of us in Your image, who created the potential for this deadly disease, hear our cries and deliver us from the tentacles of this misery!

Inspire us to find ways to reach out to one another for comfort, while keeping ourselves safe.

Help us to retain our humanity while we avoid this virus.

Help us to treat one another with compassion.

And please, please God, let justice and mercy guide those distributing the vaccines.

O God, who listened to the cries of Your people in Egypt, hear our cries now and heal us.

And let us say, Amen.

Planning Our Thanksgiving 2020

Image: A cartoon of pumpkin pie, with words of thanks on it. (John Hain / Pixabay)

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year in our household.

That may sound funny, since I’m a rabbi, but I’m also an elder in an interfaith family. Linda and I are Jews. Our sons are both secular agnostics. Other members of our extended family of choice are cultural Christians or Catholics. Thanksgiving may have a problematic history, but it is the day that we’re all on the same page: we love one another, and we love to eat together.

This year, after some anguished conversations with various family members, we decided that we would not come together for the day, not even the two households that share a bubble. The issue was that if we couldn’t ALL come together, we’d be leaving others out. Leaving someone out of Thanksgiving was unthinkable, so instead we came up with a new plan.

We’re dropping off goodies at each other’s front doors, and Linda and I are available to Zoom with anyone who wants to Zoom. We haven’t worked out all the details, but the emotion driving this decision is love. We love each other too much to risk someone getting sick.

There’s a Jewish name for this plan: it’s called shmirat haguf, guarding the body, or guarding health. It is based on a verse in Torah:

Guard your self and your soul most carefully

Deuteronomy 4:9

Maimonides, a physician, wrote a chapter on health in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish law:

Since the maintenance of the body in health and wholeness is God’s way, (for it is impossible that one should understand or know any of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator while sick) it is necessary for a person to stay away from things which destroy the body, and make habits in things which are healthful and life-imparting.

Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, 4:1 (my translation)

We are all tired of COVID-19. We miss the people we used to hug so freely, and our routines, like a cup of coffee at a favorite cafe. Some of us are angry, and some are afraid. Some are worried that medical advice has been tainted with politics.

All I know is that it would break my heart if I thought someone in my family got sick from sitting at my table. This year, we will say, “Next year, at the same table!” And this year, we will phone each other and say, “I love you.” And that will have to be enough.

Kislev Tov 5781!

Image: Chanukah gelt on a dark brown table. (lisa-skvo / shutterstock)

It’s Rosh Chodesh Kislev! Rosh Chodesh means “first of the month.” Look at the sky and you will see almost no moon at all – the New Moon is the signal for the new month. This year, if the sky is clear, you may also see the Leonid meteor shower, with the sky so nice and dark.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah. (On 12/10/2020, this year.)

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 the month in which Passover falls as “the first month.”

So Rosh Chodesh Tov, or Kislev Tov, whichever you prefer. I hope you have a joyful month.

Parashat Vayera: A Dead Sea Story

Image: The Dead Sea (Photo by Matthijs van der Ham from Pixabay)

Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley.  The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South.   It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish.   It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place.  Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there

The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy.  They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people.  They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long. 

When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.

A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households.  They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down.  The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here!  The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly.  So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley.  Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch. 

Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story.  Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel.  (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.)  Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom.  The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers.  In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire.  Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them.  Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.

If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley.  You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea.  Nothing grows.  The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot.  The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital.  It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it. 

Now you may be asking yourself:  did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers?   Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?

My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.  What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values.    It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah.  It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice.  It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.

If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live.  Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman.  But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel.  He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality.  The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls. 

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place.  Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom.  Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.

Jewish History Books, 5781 Edition

Image: Several books, piled and open. (moritz320 /Pixabay)

“Jewish History” is a huge topic. The Jews have been around a long time — more or less 3000 years — and we have lived everywhere on the globe. Jewish history is an enormous tapestry of ideas, people, and events.

So when a student asks me, “What’s the best history book, rabbi?” I usually ask, “What did you have in mind?” Some people are looking for an overview to orient them in the Jewish timeline. Others have something more specific in mind. Here are my suggestions:

Overview of Jewish History:

Givertz, Gila. Jewish History: The Big Picture. This book is adapted from the two-volume The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the JewsThis is a comprehensive history of the Jewish People, written in a very accessible style. It’s probably the most exhaustive one-volume history currently in print.

Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Potok is a master novelist, and this very readable history is a good introduction to Jewish history. It’s available as a used paperback.

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” These volumes (with a third volume expected in the near future) are a cultural history of the Jews written by an art historian and scholar.  These are companion volumes to Schama’s PBS and BBC series. Schama tells this history differently than a rabbi would tell it — and I think that’s the strength of this series.

Scheindlin, Raymond. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern StatehoodThis history is brief and very readable, by a distinguished scholar who is also a Reform rabbi. Used copies are easily available online and sometimes in local used bookstores.

Mack, Stan. The Story of the Jews . This history is written in graphic novel format. While it is not a scholarly history, it does a good job of describing the Jewish story and putting it into a chronological framework. It is a very easy read, but it still has lots of good information.

Not a history per se, but a great resource:

Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People from the Time of thePatriarchs to the PresentThis is an excellent historical resource, especially if you are drawn to pictures, time lines and graphics.

Is there a book you recommend that isn’t on this list? I’d be delighted if you’d share it in the Comments.

Antisemitism Hits Home

Image: The graffiti on the door of Temple Sinai. (Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai.)

The heavy old doors are weather-worn, their 106 years showing. I’ve walked through them many times and on many occasions: holidays, weddings, numberless Shabbats. Nowadays they are kept locked, because our security has to be very tight at Temple Sinai, but they are still part of the beautiful façade of the building.

We got another reminder this week of the need for security. Someone spray-painted a swastika on that old door, along with other vandalism on the facility. The first I knew of it was an email from the senior rabbi, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, and the executive director, Terrie Goren. As they wrote:

This is unfortunate news to share, yet we are grateful that neither the graffiti nor the perpetrator posed a direct threat to our staff or congregants. Our beautiful sanctuary has stood on the corner of Webster and 28th streets for over 100 years. It will weather this challenge, as will we.

This is just the latest such incident. Temple Sinai is an urban synagogue, and as such has to deal with graffiti from time to time, but this was unmistakable in its hateful intent. The memory of Rosh Hashanah morning in 2017 is still sharp, too, the last time someone put explicitly antisemitic and obscene paintings on the exterior of the building.

The Oakland Police Department tweeted on Wednesday evening that they have a suspect in custody. I appreciate their effort, and at the same time, I do not feel particularly relieved. I am acutely aware of the rise of antisemitism here and elsewhere in the United States.

Most minorities in the U.S. are feeling threatened in the shadow of the upcoming election. The hateful talk on social media has reached frightening levels.

I have two requests of my readers, if you are thinking, “How can I help?”

The first request is that you vote in the November 3 election, if you haven’t already done so. Nothing is going to get better until we have better leadership in Washington, and while it is already dreadful, it can and will get a lot worse if we do not change our leadership.

The second request is that you search your heart about the categories of people who are hated by white supremacists: Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, Muslims, LGBTQ, Jews, all people of color, immigrants… such a long list and I am sure I’m forgetting someone. If there’s a category on that list that makes you hesitate, some group of people you feel squirrelly about, then do the work of growing past that limitation. Educate yourself. Read a book. Change your heart.

Hatred is tearing American apart. It’s up to us to save it.

New Online Class: Sampling Judaism!

Image: Samples of food. Photo by Jose B. Garcia Fernandez | Pixabay

Sometimes a whole loaf is too much. Sometimes we want a sample. I’ve been thinking for a while about offering something for people who want to learn a little about Judaism, without a huge investment of time and money.

— What do Jews believe about God? How do Jews pray?

— Why are Jews called the People of the Book? Which book? What is Torah? What is in Jewish scripture? What is the Talmud?

— What is the biggest Jewish holiday? How can some Jews insist on their Jewish identity, and at the same time say they are “not religious”?

Starting November 9, HaMaqom |The Place is offering a new class, Sampling Judaism. It will be a three week series of one-hour classes with short presentations by a rabbi (me) with plenty of time for questions.

This class is a short dip into Jewish culture and practice, not intended to be the equivalent of a full “Introduction to Judaism” course. The content will follow a basic structure of Jewish ideas about God, Torah, and the Jewish People, but the details will be driven by students’ questions.

For more information about Sampling Judaism, take a look at its page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and further financial aid is available to those who need it.

If you are curious about Judaism, or know someone who is curious, please share this information with them. I’ll see you (or them!) in class!

Chodesh Tov! It’s Cheshvan.

Image: A large ripe pumpkin is surrounded by dying vines. (wagrati_photo / Pixabay)

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from Waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first month of the year, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

This year the United States will hold a national election on the 17th of Cheshvan, Nov. 3, 2020.

May this Cheshvan bring peace and clarity to us on many levels.