Author Archives: Jonathan Wittenberg

Jonathan Wittenberg

About Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.

Lighting the Light

Reprinted with permission from
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
(Aviv Press).


The Maccabees were fighters. The early Maccabean leaders rose in revolt against the Seleucid tyranny and its Jewish collaborators who were turning Jerusalem into a Greek city, but the later leaders were no less power-seek­ing and corrupt than those whom their elders had made their reputation by defeating. For this and other reasons, they were little loved by the Rab­bis, who accorded their victories hardly any space in the vast literature of the Talmud.candles in the dark hanukkah hanukiyah

But there remain three achievements to their credit. They had the vision to fight an impossible war and the courage to win. Once they had regained the Temple precincts, they had the persistence to search them until they found a vessel marked with the High Priest’s seal. Then, although the oil they found was really far too little, they filled the lamps on the Menorah and set them alight, trusting in whatever would be. These three acts represent the essential stages of leadership and inspiration.

Looking Past the Ruins

The Temple was defiled; Jerusalem, ruled by renegades, was in the grip of a foreign and antagonistic culture. But what the Maccabees saw was not defeat; they beheld the Temple as it would be–rebuilt. Look at the world in any age, in any place, and one has the same choice. One can either see only destruction and misery, the unending testimony of disappointment. Or one can see, together with and in defiance of it, striving, courage, and compassion, an ineradicable humanity in the humbling struggle to trans­form defeat into new hope.

One can see only the ruins of the Temple, or one can see the rebuilding as well.

My friend, who works with victims of torture and persecution, shared with me a moving example of just this endeavor. An old peasant and a young man whose family had been killed for their political beliefs met in prison. One day the elderly man was brutally beaten. The young man com­forted him, telling him that he would teach him to read, an opportunity his harsh fortunes had until then denied him. This, he said, would be the victory. By reading together they would make an affirmation of their com­mon humanity. No amount of force could ever take that away.

The Shofar’s Question

Reprinted with permission from The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, published by Aviv Press.

“And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out, and stood in the entrance to the cave. And behold there came to him a voice and said: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?'” (1 Kings 19:12-13)

One of my colleagues had the custom of holding up his shofar to show that it was in the shape of a question mark. I often blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but mine would have to be twisted considerably before it would look the same. Still, I agree that the shofar presents a question.shofar on a red background

This is true even at the most basic level. If one strikes the keyboard of a piano, it produces a note. But if one blows into the shofar–even though one has some skill and has blown successfully on a dozen previous occasions–there is always a doubt. Responding to the atmosphere in the synagogue, or the spirit of the service, or some hidden facet of the blower’s state of being, the shofar may simply refuse to produce any sound at all. There is always a mystery, always a question.

Hearing the Sound

To whom is this question addressed? Jewish law provides a clear answer. Everyone has to hear the sound of the shofar. The very blessing that the blower recites tells us that the commandment is not to make, but to listen to, the sound. Just to overhear it is not enough. If one passes a building and happens to catch the sound of the notes, that is not considered proper listening. There has to be a partnership between blower and hearer, a shared attentiveness. For the shofar addresses each person individually. Its question cannot be heard by proxy or by the outer ear only; we have to lis­ten to it in the fullness of our own being.

What is the shofar’s question? There is an important clue in the story of Elijah, who journeyed for 40 days to reach the mountain of the Lord and entered the very same cave where God was revealed to Moses. There he heard the terrifying sounds of earthquakes, fire, and thunder. But they left him unmoved; he remained in his cave. When, however, he heard the voice of fine silence, he was struck by awe and understood that this was a summons he had to answer. Covering his face with his mantle, he came out to confront the ultimate question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Passing Before God

Reprinted with permission from
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
, published by Aviv Press.

“On Rosh Hashanah all who enter the world pass before God like sheep in a flock.” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:2)

What it means to pass before God is a mystery. Even Moses in his greatest moment, was told that he could not see God’s face and live: He was placed in a cleft of the rock while God’s glory passed by. So how can we possibly “pass before God”? Unsure of what this really means, we can only rely on our tradition, and the intimations of our own spiritual sensitivity.

Of course, one could take a negative view and ask why it matters so very much. After all, presumably the omniscient God, if there is a God, knows us, whether we are aware of it and whether we care about it or not. But unless we wish to live our lives blindly it is not a real option to be dismis­sive about our side of the relationship with God. It would be as if we didn’t mind when people said to us, as happens from time to time. “I know you; don’t you remember me?” I always feel mortified when I realize that I ought to have known the person concerned. Just as it shames me when a human encounter fails, so I would be pained to feel that I had gone through my life with God saying to me, as it were, “I know you, but you don’t recognize or care about me!”

Furthermore, in having some sense of knowing and being known by the spirit, however vague and however fleet­ing, may lie one of life’s greatest opportunities both for gaining self-knowledge and for discovering something of the vitality that is the expression of God’s presence in the world.

Moments of Prayer

There are moments in life which disclose a deeper sense of being. They may occur in all sorts of circumstances but they are in essence moments of prayer. To sit beside a stream while the mind is emptied by the rush and plunge of water over the ledge of rocks; to listen at night to the sound of the wind in the trees; to become conscious of one particular tree, its sap, its wakefulness; to ponder the words of a poem and sense the company of all the people who have mused over the same image; to sit with the sick and learn from their speech and their silence what lies at the doors of mor­tality–in all these ways God enters our consciousness. These experiences calm the preoccupied mind, wake the dormant soul, and open us to the sheer power and depth of life.