8th Night: More Things in Heaven and Earth

Image: Sunrise. Photo by Arek Socha / Pixabay.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

My grandmother had a knack for turning up at hospitals whenever a family member went to the emergency room. She couldn’t really explain it; she’d just get a feeling that she needed to go someplace, and she’d go, and as soon as she walked into the ER waiting room, she’d see the person and know why she was there. I don’t know how she did it, but I know of three different occasions on which it happened.

My wife’s parents both died on Dec 25. Bill died of pancreatic cancer. When Eva Mae died, many years later, she was deep into Alzheimer’s and no longer knew anyone who visited her. However, she died on exactly the same day on the calendar that Bill did.

June Carter Cash died on May 15. Her beloved, Johnny Cash, followed her on September 12. In life they could not bear to be separated for long, so no one was surprised when he passed so soon after her.

Skeptics will tell you that my grandmother was a nut. (In truth, I don’t know how many times she went to ER’s on a false hunch.) They will tell you that Eva Mae’s death on Bill’s yahrzeit was a coincidence. And they will tell you that Johnny Cash was very old and sick even before June passed.

But I firmly believe that we human beings are connected to one another in ways that we do not fully understand. I see this message throughout Torah. In fact, it is a central message of Torah: everything we do has consequences for other human beings, much of which comes about precisely because we are so connected to one another. Some of those consequences are easy to see (Joseph annoys his brothers, so they strike back at him in anger in Parashat Vayeshev) and some are more subtle (Joseph’s brothers want him to suffer, and he does, but in Egypt he can rise to power and live to save their lives and uncounted others in the famine in Parashat Miketz. The bond between Aaron and Moses is strong, despite lives that are different in almost every way, and they share a destiny in the foundation of the Jewish nation.

A lot of people are worried about the political changes about to take place in the United States, and the political currents at work in much of the world. I won’t lie: I’m worried too. It seems that many kinds of hate are on the rise, and that our human connections are threatened by selfish and sinister motives.

We learned a lot in the 20th century about what hatred and fear can do to human beings. The French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, suffered much in the worst of it, and he made it his life’s work to analyze what happened. His philosophy describes the encounter of the Self and the Other, the mystery of the Other, and the way in which the existence of the Other interrupts our individual Self-ishness. The Other disturbs our comfortable Self, demanding response, demanding response. It makes a call to us: a call for love.

I believe that our human nature drives us to connection with other human beings. It has dangers (remember Joseph!) but it carries immense promise. There are those who are driven by fear to objectify other people; they respond to the strangeness of others with brutality. The antidote to that fear is to respond to stranger-ness with love.  That is why our Torah teaches:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Adonai your God. – Leviticus 19:33-34

I invite you to join me in celebrating this New Year of 2017, this last night of Chanukah, with a commitment to love above all else. Without love we risk descending into the fear and alienation that goes nowhere good. But with love, with a commitment to the mitzvah of loving those who are different from ourselves, everything is possible.

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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.

 

Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

Intro Class, 5th Night of Chanukah

Image: Ten menorahs on a table, each with 6 candles lit. 10 people sit behind the table in the dark. 

The final meeting of the Fall session of Intro fell on the 5th night of Chanukah, so I invited the class to bring their own chanukiot to class. (Thank you, Lisa Hanauer, for the great suggestion.)

We sang the blessings, then paused for a quick class photo with the glowing candles, before we turned the lights back on to learn.

I was still glowing on the drive home – what a lovely, lovely memory of a wonderful group of students!

Jewish Self-Care for December: 12 Tips

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

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.

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.

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.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that he or she 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, 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 menorah, 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.”

 

 

 

How To Chanukah

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

Chanukah begins this year (2017) at sundown on December 12.

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!

 

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!