Author Archives: Geoff Mitelman

Geoff Mitelman

About Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received the Cora Kahn Prize from the Cincinnati faculty for the most outstanding sermon delivery and oratory. An alumnus of Princeton University, he received multiple prizes for outstanding scholarship in Biblical and Judaic studies. In addition to My Jewish Learning, his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He was interviewed by BBC Radio’s World Have Your Say about the religious implications of the Higgs Boson, and is also on the planning committee for the new URJ 6 Points Science Academy. For seven years, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter Caroline.

What (and How) The Simpsons Can Teach Us All

Simpson FamilyIf you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep. starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.

The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theoryscience and religion.

Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.

Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”

Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”

That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.

Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.

So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties’: enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”

That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.

If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jewsand will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.

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Posted on August 21, 2014

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Liberalism, Loyalty and Israel

Iron DomeI am sad. I am scared. I am angry.

Like many of you, over the last few weeks, I’ve been following the news about the kidnapping and murder of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal, followed by the revenge killing of Muhammed, followed by increased rocket attacks by Hamas towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, followed by military response from Israel into Gaza. And I am particularly sad, scared and angry about what might follow next.

But what has been most challenging for me personally has been the internal tension between my liberal values and my loyalty to Israel—and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

Last month, I mentioned how much I value Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He uses a framework that has helped me understand why I have felt so torn these last few days.

Morality, Haidt argues, isn’t just one thing. It has five main different facets to it—care for others, justice and fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and a sense of sanctity. Liberals, he notes, tend to focus mainly on the first two (care and justice), and feel much less strongly about the other three (loyalty, authority and sanctity).

Most of the time, liberals are deeply focused on caring for others, so when people are in harm’s way, we simply see that they need our support. When we see Boko Haram kidnap girls in Nigeria, or genocide in Darfur, or millions of immigrants unable to enter the United States, we feel motivated to act.

But when it comes to Israel—especially when it is under attack—many liberal Jews also embrace a sense of loyalty, as well. And the result is that our “care” foundation comes into direct conflict with “loyalty” foundation.

On the one hand, our sense of care is aroused when we see the citizens of southern Israel under constant rocket attacks from Hamas, as well as innocent Palestinians who are caught in the crossfire. On the other hand, when we see how poorly the media portrays Israel, or when we feel like other Jews are not rallying to defend Israel, our sense of loyalty rises to the forefront.

And that’s the reason why so many liberal Jews are feeling so torn about what is happening in Israel right now—two of our foundational beliefs are in conflict.

Now, we may never resolve this conflict within ourselves, let alone the conflict in the Middle East. But when we do feel this tension, we need to remember two things.

First, both care and loyalty are strong foundations for our sense of morality. Indeed, if you are feeling torn right now, that’s a good thing, because it means that you have a broad and deep sense of what right and wrong might entail.

Second, care and loyalty are not the same thing. They motivate different types of actions, and different people may prize one over the other. So when we get angry at people because we think they are being either disloyal or uncaring, we need to recognize that they may be valuing a different element of their morality than we are.

Ultimately, when we are feeling torn between our loyalty to Israel and our care for others, we should remember the words of Walt Whitman, ““Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

May we be large enough to embrace both our sense of loyalty and our sense of care, and finally create the peace that we all so desperately want.

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Posted on July 10, 2014

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3 Cognitive Science Books That Teach Jewish Ideas

Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? Why doesn’t everyone share our same beliefs? And why is it so hard to be happy?

These are questions that are integral to the field of cognitive science—the study of how and why we think, feel and act the way we do. But what’s interesting is that so many of these questions have links to Jewish thought and practice.

As someone whose shelves are overflowing with books about cognitive science, and who often integrates these findings with Jewish teachings, I want to share three books that teach Jewish ideas.

The Honest Truth About DishonestyThe (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

Let’s be honest, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us. We all cheat. You cheat. I cheat. But we don’t do it because we are bad people. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as good people, so we tend to “fudge” things just enough so that we can keep that self-perception. So not only do we cheat, we also lie to ourselves about our own cheating!

But of course, lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism. We are taught: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor,” and “You shall have honest scales and measures.” (Lev. 19:13 and 19:36) Since Judaism tries to teach us how to honest and ethical people, it’s crucial to understand how and why we end up missing the mark. Ariely’s work gives an insight into what encourages—and even more importantly, discourages—cheating, in the hopes of building a more just society.

The Righteous MindThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There’s a reason politics and religion are generally taboo topics for polite conversation—if you feel strongly about your political or religious beliefs, you just can’t seem to understand how people on the other side can be so stupid. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that a large part of the problem is that we think of religion and politics as being about “right” versus “wrong,” and when we phrase the question that way, it actually becomes “us” versus “them.” As he says, “Morality binds and blinds”—morality creates a more cohesive group of “us,” but it also keeps us from seeing other perspectives and the needs of “them.”

That creates a real challenge edge for the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a religion, but a people. There definitely is an “us” when we think about the Jewish people. But a sense of universalism is central to Judaism, as well—when we think about Jewish ethics, we tend to think about at the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Haidt’s book helps us to understand where morality comes from, and how we can grow the sense of who we consider to be “one of us.”

Stumbling on HappinessStumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Which would you rather have happen: win the lottery, or become a quadriplegic? Most of us, without even a thought, would pick the first, because we think that winning the lottery would make us happy, and becoming a quadriplegic would devastate us. But how many wealthy people do you know who are actually miserable? And how many people who have suffered a tragedy are actually fulfilled in their lives? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that we are very, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and that’s because we have a “now-self” and a “future-self”—and they are not always the same self.

Judaism, too, lives with this tension of the present and the future. We both envision a time when the world will be at peace, but we have to do the actions here and now that will make that happen. Or at the High Holy Days, we dream about the kind of person we will become, but recognize that it’s our day-to-day actions that will make us that person. Gilbert reminds us that our “future-self” soon becomes our “now-self,” so we have act in ways that help us bridge that divide.

Ultimately, the reason I love cognitive science is that is helps us better understand who we are and why we act the way we do. And so I believe that if we use the best of science and the best of religion, we can make our own individual lives more fulfilled, and our world a little better.

These three books have been instrumental for me—what books have had a surprising influence on your Judaism?

Posted on June 12, 2014

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Why We Love “Throwback Thursday”

keep-calm-its-time-for-throwback-thursday-1Every Thursday, my Facebook feed is filled with old pictures, stories of favorite memories, and statuses that remind people of “where they were X years ago.” Why? Because they all end with the hashtag “#tbt”—a way for people to recall memories on “Throwback Thursday.”

But why do we love “Throwback Thursday?”

Clearly, when we go through our old pictures or think back on events we experienced, we feel a wonderful sense of nostalgia—a warm, fuzzy feeling. But that just pushes the question one level back: why do we feel nostalgia? What value does does nostalgia have?

It’s actually a very nuanced question. The value of simple memory is very easy to explain, especially for evolutionary reasons. If, on the African savanna, you could remember who in your tribe had helped you take down that mastodon, or which berries had made you sick when you ate them, or where that saber-tooth tiger tended to live, you would clearly have an competitive advantage over others.

But it’s harder to understand why we would want to use memories to evoke certain feelings. especially because nostalgia is often very bittersweet. We smile when we remember a poignant memory, and at the same time, there’s some sadness as we realize that that moment from the past can’t ever be replicated.

Yet it turns out that there is some research that suggests that those feelings of nostalgia can make us better people. As John Tierney explains in a piece in the New York Times, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Nostalgia, in other words, helps us connect to ourselves and to others. As Dr. Constantine Sedikides, one of the pioneers in this field, remarked: “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

So if that’s what nostalgia truly is about, then Judaism is very much about nostalgia. We see our child become bar or bat mitzvah, and we see the past, present and future mixed together. We smell the brisket our grandmother used to make on Passover, and it brings us back to our childhood seders. We join a synagogue community and build relationships and memories that sustain us.

So “Throwback Thursday” is a perfect avenue for Judaism. It connects us to our friends and our family. It roots us. And it makes us smile.

Because in the end, our memories are what make us who we are. When we recall our fondest memories, we end up strengthening our sense of self.

And that’s why we love “Throwback Thursday”—it not only lets us relive the past, it truly helps us live in the present and get ready for the future.

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Posted on May 15, 2014

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Should We Really Label Our Children? Yes…Sometimes.

baskinhaggadah11I’ve always been troubled by the “four children” in the Haggadah.

Passover is supposed to teach our children about how we can create a world filled with more justice, kindness and compassion, so where I struggle is with the idea of calling a child inherently “wise, wicked, simply or unable to ask.” I had always been taught that to raise moral children, we should praise behavior (“that was very kind of you to share your toys!”) and not identity (“you’re such a nice person!”).

So when it came to the four children, I believed that by calling them “wise” or “wicked,” “simple” or “unable to ask,” I would be pigeonholing them into an identity, and one that they could never grow out of. But it looks like I might have been wrong — at least when it comes to encouraging good behavior and creating good people.

On Sunday, Adam Grant (author of the book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success), wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times and shared some fascinating research on what we can do to raise ethical children. One of his main points is that at the age when children begin to create their sense of identity (about 7 or 8 years old), we should praise “who they are” in order to help them start to see themselves as good people.

In one experiment, children won some marbles, and then donated them. They were all told, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.” But for some of the children, the action was praised (“that was a nice and helpful thing to do”), while for others, the character was praised (“you are a nice and helpful person”).

The question was, what would happen down the road, when the children were given a new chance to be nice and helpful? As it turned out,

…[t]he children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been.

Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.

This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs. To get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.”

When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.

While we may still grapple with the Haggadah “labeling” children, the truth is, our behaviors create our identity, and our identity informs our behavior. After all, some of us relish being “the curious one” or “the provocative one,” some of us are always just happy to be together with friends and family, and some of us need to be shown what we are missing.

In the end, Passover reminds us that we are free, which means that we have the freedom to choose how we act. Yet those actions will ultimately define who we are.

So with all the questions this holiday encourages, perhaps the most important one is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”

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Posted on April 17, 2014

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Knock, Knock — Your Evidence is Here

Andrei LindeThe Big Bang has always evoked a sense of mystery, awe and curiosity among scientists and laypeople alike. But while the Big Bang has been well-established and well-documented in the scientific community for over 50 years, the question of how the universe expanded from “minuscule” to “gigantic” in a fraction of a second was the subject of a variety of theories. One proposed idea was called “inflation theory,” and while it was theorized and generally supported, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine if it was true.

Until this week.

On Monday, scientists announced that they had discovered the proposed “gravity waves” that now provide us an understanding of what happened within the the first 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 second of the birth of the universe. To get a sense of just how important this finding is, consider that the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation — which helped us get to within 380,000 years after the Big Bang — led to a Nobel Prize for Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.

But while the science itself is quite exciting, what’s even more powerful is how scientists are responding.

One video that has been making the rounds is Professor Chao-Lin Kuo telling Professor Andrei Linde (one of the people who helped develop inflation theory) that after many decades, his theory was now supported by hard evidence:

There are several moments that are wonderful here (my favorite is when Linde and his physicist wife Renata Kallosh nearly collapse over the news), but there is one line Linde uses that borders on the religious.

“This is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms,” he says. “Let us hope it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling: ‘What if I am tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? What if…’” — and he trails off.

In other words, Linde had faith his theory was true, but until Kuo knocked on his door and reported his results, he didn’t know if his faith would be justified. Linde had no idea Kuo was coming, so his wife thought it was a delivery and asked, “Did you order anything?” “Yeah,” he answers, laughing, “I ordered thirty years ago! Finally, it arrived!”

Andrea Denhoed nicely describes how Linde must have felt at that moment:

It’s rare enough for a person to have a life’s work; to be able to see the validation of that work firsthand is understandably an overpowering experience. Linde might not call those years of waiting “faith,” but what he describes sounds somewhat like it—the persevering hope in the face of doubt and self-questioning: “What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?” Faith, after all, is not just a religious category, and science isn’t divorced from our human capacities for aesthetic appreciation and awe.

Belief, joy, awe, curiosity — these feelings are more than religious. They are more than scientific. They are reflections of the best of what it means to be human. They are the sources from which both religion and science spring.

Indeed, while we marvel at the cosmos and the mind-blowing nature of the early universe, we also need to marvel at the human side of these findings.

Yes, it is inspiring to consider the ingenuity that has helped us get closer and closer to the first few moments of our universe.

But what truly gives me hope, what truly makes this potentially Nobel-Prize-winning discovery so special, is the unbridled joy and excitement of seeing a person’s deeply-held belief system vindicated.

We may never come close to reaching Andrei Lin and Chao-Lin Kuo’s intelligence. We laypeople may never truly grasp inflation theory. But we can all understand just how Andrei Linde must have felt when Kuo knocked on his door and said, “Your evidence is here.”

 

Posted on March 20, 2014

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Derek Jeter’s Legacy — “Know Before Whom You Stand”

Derek JeterLast week, Derek Jeter — the New York Yankees’ star shortstop for almost 20 years — announced that 2014 would be his final year. Not only was he the face of the Yankees, in a poll of over 1000 baseball fans, he was seen to be “the face of baseball.”

So as his incredible career comes to a close, and as both Yankee fans and baseball fans start to think about his impact, I want to highlight one Jewish value that I think exemplifies Derek Jeter’s legacy: da lifnei mi atah omed – “Know before Whom you stand.”

That phrase from Rabbinic literature is on top of many arks in synagogues. The idea is that if we are constantly reminded that God is watching us, we become that much more likely to consider our actions and to ensure that we behave in ethical ways.

And as a lot of research shows, if we have someone else we have to answer to — whether that is a boss, a colleague, a spouse or simply public opinion — we become much more committed to fulfilling our goals and acting more appropriately. After all, we humans are masters at rationalizing poor behavior. We can easily talk ourselves out of going to the gym (“it’s raining out!”), or into cheating a little bit on our taxes (“everyone else does it!”). If we don’t have anyone else to answer to, our brains are experts at creating excuses.

So even if we don’t believe in all-powerful, all-seeing Deity, if we are constantly reminded that someone may always be watching and that we should “know before Whom we stand,” then we act more responsibly.

That was a lesson that stuck with Derek Jeter over 20 years ago, three years before he truly broke into the Major Leagues. During spring training in 1993, Jeter and Don Mattingly (the face of the Yankees of that time) were heading back to the clubhouse from the field. The stands were empty — there were no coaches, no other players, no media. Despite that, rather than simply strolling back to the dugout, Mattingly told Jeter to run in anyway. Why? “Because you never know who is watching.”

Mattingly’s lesson that “you never know who is watching” inspired Jeter at the outset of his career. He would hustle, he would play hard, and he wouldn’t showboat because he always knew that anything he did would be watching and scrutinized. In the end, that made him a fantastic ballplayer and a mensch of a human being.

Indeed, if we always keep in mind that someone is paying attention to our words and actions, we will make sure to bring our A game.

That was a lesson the Rabbis wanted to teach, as well. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students went to visit him. They said: “Master, give us your blessing.” He answered: “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings.” They said: “Is that all?” He replied: “That is more than enough, believe me! Don’t you know that when we are about to do something wrong, we dismiss God from our minds and hope that no human eye will see us!”

In our world today, someone is always watching. And that’s why Derek Jeter was “the face of baseball.” Yes, other players had better stats and may have objectively have been better players. But because he always “knew before whom he stood,” he acted with respect, hard work and humility — towards himself, his teammates, his opponents and the game of baseball.

And that’s a legacy we all can strive to leave, as well.

 

Posted on February 20, 2014

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What Makes a Home a Home?

What’s the purpose of having a home? While that question might seem obvious, in fact, it raises some fascinating questions about human biology and archaeology.

In an article entitled “In Search of the First Human Home,” curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History Ian Tattersall asks a fascinating question: what distinguishes a “home” that human beings create from a “shelter” that all animals seek?

BeidhaSome scholars think that the sense of “home” began to arise not from a need for shelter, but a need for community. We humans evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we began to root ourselves in specific locations. As Tattersall notes, “The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place.”

“Home,” in other words, is more than just a space—as we evolved as humans, “home” became a place with deep emotional significance. And in Judaism, a “home” is more than just four walls; it, too, is supposed to be a place with a strong sense of holiness.

When I work with wedding couples, I do one session with them where they reflect on the homes in which they grew up. What did they see in their parents’ relationship? What do they want to bring in from their past into this new family they are creating? What do they want to leave behind?

Then, we start to think about the future, and the Jewish home they will be creating together. I then share with them just how important the home is within Jewish thought.

For close to 1000 years, God’s dwelling-place was thought to be the Temple in Jerusalem (in Hebrew, the location of the Temple Mount was Har ha-Bayit, or “The Mountain of the House”). But in the year 70, the Romans came and destroyed the Temple, leading to a huge question facing the Jewish community — will God still be with us if the Temple no longer existed?

The Rabbis answered with a resounding “yes”…although God would have to move into two new primary locations. The first, and less important one, would be the synagogue. The second, more important location where God would live would be the home. Jews were to make their home a “mikdash me’at,” a Temple in miniature, or as it’s often phrased, “a small sanctuary.”

“So,” I then turn to the wedding couple, “how will you make your home a mikdash me’at—a small sanctuary?

With this framing, they start to think about their apartment our house in a new way. Words like “safe,” “joyous,” or “ours” often arise. Their sense of “home” shifts from a simple place where they keep their stuff to a place where holiness, connectedness and spirituality emanate.

As human beings, we are wired with a a desire to explore. But as the search for the first human home reminds us, we are also wired to feel a sense of rootedness and safety. We need more than a house — we need a home.

So perhaps, if we truly work on it, we can even transform our home into a true sanctuary—a place where we can find God’s dwelling-place in our midst.

Posted on January 23, 2014

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The Hanukkah Calendar Quirk You Might Have Missed

Yes, everyone in the Jewish world and beyond knows today is Thankgivukkah. But there’s another quirk of the calendar that Hanukkah gives us every year—and is one that very few people seem to know about.

light-in-the-darknessIt just so happens that the night we light the seventh candle is always also one of the darkest nights of the year. Not the shortest night, but the darkest night, owing to the new, tiny, sliver of a moon — Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the new month of Tevet, begins at sundown of the seventh night of Hanukkah. In other words, the seventh night of Hanukkah is one of two nights that are closest to the winter solstice on which there is no visible moon. (The second is Rosh Hodesh Shevat, which falls on January 1st this year.)

I highly doubt that this was an intentional placement on the calendar. It’s just as “planned” as the fact that we’re likely to be in the Torah portions telling the Joseph story during Hanukkah, as well—the seventh night of Hanukkah falls on this ultra-dark night of the year occurs just because a few different ways of setting Jewish time happen to coincide. But I find that there’s something quite powerful in knowing that the seventh night of Hanukkah is the night that most requires us kindle lights.

On the seventh night, our Hanukkiah is almost full. With eight of the nine candles flickering in the window, we see almost all of our lights. As Hanukkah in general reminds us of holding onto hope in the most difficult times, lighting the Hanukkiah reminds us that we can bring light even in the darkest times. And on this dark night, we are using almost all of our candles to bring some light into this world.

But the key word there is “almost”—we are not bringing all of our lights. We might think that it would be great if this dark night happened to fall on the eighth night, the night on which our Hanukkiah is full and we would make a powerful statement that “Even in our darkest times, we can bring all of our lights to shine!”

Except our Hanukkiah is not full on this specific night. There’s one candle missing—and that’s wonderful, because it reminds us of so many other things we might forget otherwise. It reminds us that even when we bring our light, there is still darkness in this world, for our world is not yet redeemed. It reminds us that there is still more work that needs to be done, and so there is always more light we can bring. It reminds us that even in our happiest times, life is not all joyous—we all face moments of doubt and despair, and those are parts of the human condition, as well.

And yet for me, knowing that there is one “missing” light reminds me most of the words of Rabbi Tarfon—”Lo alecha ham’lcha ligmor, v’lo atah bein chorin l’hibatel mimenah,” which we usually translate it as “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Often we take that to mean, “The world is never going to be perfect – but we have to try.” I read it a little bit differently. The Hebrew says, “Lo alecha”—”it is not upon you,” and the word for “you”—alecha—in the singular. So I read that quote as, “It is not upon each of us by ourselves to complete the work—but we do have to do our part to the best our ability.”

So the message of Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the seventh night of Hanukkah, is that there is always something we can do to help bring more light into this dark world – and there is always something we must do.

Posted on November 28, 2013

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Who Will My Daughter Be?

On October 1 (and about four and half weeks early), my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. It truly was every bit as incredible, miraculous, joyous and nerve-wracking as everyone told us it would be. We can’t quite believe we have brought a new person into this world, and every time I hold her, or feed her at 3:30 AM, or bless her on Shabbat, when I look at her, all I can think of is, “Who will she be?”

As a rabbi, I live in a world where I regularly experience a whole lifespan in the stretch of just a few days. I hear young parents sharing their hopes for their brand-new child on one day, and hear grown children sharing their memories of their recently-deceased parent on the next. I see parents cry with joy as their children become bar or bat mitzvah, and see people of all ages cry with anger and frustration as they struggle with the challenges life throws at them.

But while I have had the title “rabbi” for a few years, I have had the title “daddy” for just under a month. Naturally, this new relationship is causing me to think of all sorts of questions: “What are things that my daughter will say and do that will crack me up? What challenges will she face in life? Will I have any chance of keeping it together when she becomes bat mitzvah? And what will my daughter say about me as a father when I am gone?”

Caroline Looking at DaddyWhat compounds all of these questions is the fact that right now, her communication consists of eating, sleeping, crying and pooping. Yes, I am thinking about the life she is going to lead, but the truth is, neither of us have any real idea of what she will sound like, look like or act like three months from now — let alone three, thirteen or thirty years from now.

My sister — who has a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old — once told me that, “When it comes to children, you can’t interpolate out, but you can extrapolate back.” In other words, when we are looking at the next generation and wondering what children will look like, sound like and act like years down the road, there simply isn’t enough data to make any sort of accurate prediction. But when we look back, when we study old baby pictures or tell stories about when kids were even younger, we can often say, “You were like that from the time you were a baby.”

So whether it was the way they loved to be rocked, or that they always hated being cold, or how if they had a choice between eating and sleeping, sleeping would win, there seem to be certain personality traits that stay consistent throughout life. But the only way we recognize them is when we reflect back — we can’t predict them in advance.

That’s why one of my favorite quotes is from Soren Kirkegaard: “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”

After all, we humans are meaning-making creatures. We have all sorts of things happen to us, and we don’t always understand why. It is only when we can put them into a story that they start to make sense. I don’t believe that “Everything happens for a reason,” because that creates a very challenging theology (did God really look down on the earth and say, “I’m going to give that person cancer”?). Instead, I believe that no matter what happens, we can look back on events and try to make sense and meaning out of them. What can we learn from our experiences and how can we grow from them?

As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than blooming, buzzing confusion.” (102) The reason I have no idea what kind of person our daughter will be is because at one month old, her story is just beginning to unfold. Only after she has more life experience will she be able to tell it and tell us “who she is.”

And there is another level to the story of who our daughter is, as well. Like most Jews, my wife and I named our daughter after people we loved who have passed away. Yes, their lives have ended, but the values that they taught us are inspiring the way we are trying to raise our daughter. And so God-willing, she will lead a life that will inspire the values of those who will come after her. Our daughter’s personal story is in the context of a larger narrative.

Indeed, for all of us, while our past has guided us towards who we are, we are the ones who construct our life story. And when we see ourselves as one link in a long chain of tradition, we miraculously bring both the past and the future into each and every moment of our lives.

Because ultimately, the answer to the question “Who am I?” is a dynamic one. It is always changing. So who will my daughter be thirty years from now? Ask me in 2043. All I know is that right now, she is someone my wife and I are simply loving getting to know.

Posted on October 31, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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