After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby. That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe. But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved. When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry. This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard. This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys. This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.
This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion. The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child. It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.
And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery. It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond. And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.
I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day. A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response. Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish. We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain. And we must have the conviction to respond, listening closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.
This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.
For the first time in years, my husband and I have chosen to take a staycation. Our parents and siblings live on the East Coast, so we generally spend our vacation time shuttling back and forth between cities in the Northeast, lugging over-packed suitcases on an off planes and in and out of rental cars, toting around tired children, strollers, and car-seats. You get the picture. Although I love the opportunity to see family and friends and feel deeply grateful that I have loved ones to visit, this winter we decided we just couldn’t take another big trip. We needed to stay back and regroup in our own space, in our own home here in Austin, TX.
There’s no school, so the kids can stay up late and sleep in. (And, thankfully, I have two young children who love to sleep in, so that means mom gets to sleep in too.) Although my husband and I are trying to get some things done around the house, nobody is “on the clock,” so to speak. We are enjoying being together and sharing time and space with one another — playing and singing together as a family, socializing with friends, and lingering in each other’s presence. We are not focused on homework, after school activities, work obligations, and what “has to get done,” but instead embracing our essential selves. This week is about appreciating “who we are” and not “what we are doing.” This evening I realized that this staycation feels a lot like Shabbat.
Shabbat happens every week. It isn’t a vacation, because the goal isn’t to escape to another destination. Quite the opposite. It’s a staycation — an opportunity to be present, right here, right now. On Shabbat we have the opportunity to set aside our alarm clocks and our tight schedules, connecting instead with the people in our lives whom we cherish most. It is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “an island in time” — an opening to reacquaint ourselves with who we truly are, to nourish our minds and our souls.
In just a few hours, the sun will set and Shabbat will be upon us. The term “staycation” is rather new, but the staycation of the Jewish people — aka Shabbat — is over 3,000 years old. There is a reason we’ve kept this tradition around. It works. Our souls need this seventh day of rejuvenation. As January approaches and my family returns to our regular, beloved activities, I am grateful to know that another staycation is always less than a week away.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.
As I walked through the streets of New York City one chilly morning last April, a young woman with a big smile threw her hand in front of me and cheerfully yelled: “Free bag! Want a free bag?”
“Sure.” I thought. “I can always use an extra reusable cloth tote.”
The bag she handed me was cream in color, featuring black print across the front that read: “The Secret of the Universe.” This seemed perfect! I had just finished a three-day conference with Rabbis Without Borders, where 22 rabbis from across the country and beyond the denominational boundaries had come together to wrestle with how to bring meaning to our lives and the lives of the people we touch. And here I was, with a few hours to spare on that windy day in Manhattan, running errands before my flight back to Austin, and a friendly blond woman was offering me a simple cloth bag that would disclose the answer to that very question with which rabbis have struggled for millennia.
I peered inside the bag and pulled out a card. “The secret of the Universe” – read the card – was Bobbi Brown concealer.
On the surface – just like the literally superficial makeup this bag was advertising – this whole notion of finding “the secret of the universe” seems like a cliché, maybe even silly. But, in truth, Bobbi Brown’s marketing people are onto something – something beneath the skin. They are tapping into our deep human desire to unlock meaning in our lives. Framed in this way, I don’t think any of us would call it silly. When I sit with folks who are battling cancer, struggling to heal traumatized relationships, or searching for a transformative career change, the question of “meaning” is far from silly; it is essential.
But Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question — “What is the secret that gives our lives meaning?” – isn’t found in a magical compact of make-up used for concealing. Rather, it is found on the opposite end of the spectrum – in deep and honest revealing. That’s the deeper truth of Jewish wisdom: “the secret” is located in sacred connections, holy experiences, and loving relationships that don’t conceal – but rather reveal – goodness and light.
The Mishnah of Pirket Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches: The world stands on three things: On Torah, on Avodah (purposeful prayer) and on Gimilut Chasadim (Acts of loving-kindness.
Torah: The climax of our Jewish narrative is the moment of Revelation on Mount Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses, revealing a language of justice, peace, and love to the Jewish people. We recapture that experience of revelation each time we sit down and study Torah with a chevrauta – a study partner – bringing new understandings to our texts and creating a space for our Jewish language to continue to evolve. The act of studying with a partner reflects the tremendous value Judaism places on encountering other human beings in sacred relationships that permit us to reveal the depth of our souls.
Avodah – Purposeful Prayer: Originally, in the time of the Temple, Avodah referred to the sacrificial offerings. Our offerings now come in the form of communal connection and recitation of sacred texts. When we truly engage in purposeful prayer, we experience the potential of revelation — we both reach out to the mystery of God, and also reach inward to connect with the mystery of our souls. In doing so, we strive to reveal our deepest feelings to the one who needs to understand us best – ourselves. Life can be disheartening and scary, yet when we come together in passionate communal prayer, we support one another and gain strength and inspiration to do the revelatory, healing work that our society so desperately needs.
G’milut Chasadim – Acts of Lovingkindness: The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, taught that there are moments in each of our lives when we become worn down and are unable to simply spring back and find meaning in life. Rebbe Shneur Zalman explained that when those moments arise, we must go out and share kindness with another human being. Visit a resident in a nursing home. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Spend time in an inner-city school helping children learn to read. When we engage in selfless acts that elevate others, we reveal God’s love and goodness to all those we touch. In that moment, not only do we bring light to others; we become filled with light ourselves.
Bobbi Brown just might have the secret to concealing an annoying pimple, but when it comes to searching for the secret to the universe, I vote for revelation over concealment and Jewish wisdom over elegantly packaged make-up.
This past Sunday, I had the honor of officiating at a beautiful wedding. Rachel and Nathan met last year here in Austin, and very quickly knew that they wanted to spend their lives together. Rather than traveling back to New Jersey to get married, they held their wedding here, in their new hometown. They were thrilled to welcome their family and friends to Austin, introducing them to the vibrant Jewish community, the live music scene, and the fabulous energy that makes this city the largest destination point for young folks between the ages of 22 and 35.
Days before the wedding, Rachel’s beloved grandfather became sick and was not able to travel to Austin. This was heartbreaking for Rachel – she couldn’t imagine not having her grandfather there on her wedding day. Although there was no feasible way to delay the wedding or move it to New Jersey, the family did have a plan to bring Rachel’s grandfather as close to the chuppah as possible. A videographer created a live stream of the ceremony so Rachel’s grandfather could watch and listen from the comfort of his bed, and following yichud, the couple was able to speak with their grandfather on an iPad.
The dancing began with an enthusiastic horah. Multiple circles of joyful guests held hands, moving around the dance floor with great excitement. Rachel and Nathan’s friends and family had learned about the tradition of preparing schtick for the bride and groom – a custom that emphasizes the importance of bringing laughter to the newlyweds on their wedding day. Young and old alike performed silly dances and songs, generating both surprise and delight.
As the music subsided and guests found their way to their seats, the iPad was brought to the front of the dance floor, the microphone was held up to the screen, and Rachel’s grandfather began to speak. He may have been giving a toast from his home in New Jersey, but the love that he felt for Rachel and Nathan and his immense gratitude for being included in their wedding festivities was palpable right here in Austin. He was then able to join together with the rest of the grandparents as they raised their voices to say HaMotzi — the blessing over the bread that officially begins the meal. Our hearts were opened a little wider in that moment.
I’m by no means a “techie,” which may be all the more reason why I was so moved by how this technological innovation enhanced our spiritual celebration. As a community builder, I truly believe in the power of being present. And, in this case, under these circumstances, Rachel’s grandfather was present. He was right there with us in Austin, TX.
As I walked to my car on Sunday evening, I said to my husband, “I think it’s time to get an iPad.”