I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!
Yet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.
Aside from the commercialism of it all, aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.
Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.
Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.
And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.
So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.
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This Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at their tables and embark on recreating the narrative of the Exodus through the rituals of the seder. We will immerse ourselves in the story from some 3,000 years ago that forged the Jewish people. We will eat matzah and bitter herbs to taste as our ancestors tasted. We will drink four cups of wine to symbolize the four stages of redemption that transpired during the Egyptian experience. However, this night does not belong to the Exodus alone.
If we do not allow the seder to inspire and move us to greater action we will have missed a key component on what the whole evening is all about. The Exodus becomes a central relational context for our connection to God: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It is used four separate times to introduce major components of Biblical legislation (Exodus 23:20, 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). It is the framing by which future generations come to know their history and their people: “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 6:21).” Simply, the Exodus is the hinge by which the entire covenantal experience rests.
The Exodus is not just a story to be told. It is an imperative to be acted upon.
What is that imperative? At it’s most basic level the Exodus compels us to liberate, to free and to make better the lives of those most impacted by persecution and oppression. To “know the spirit of the stranger” as the Bible reminds us multiple times is to empathize directly with the marginalized, the outliers and the ones on the margins. In that spirit the organization I work for, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, has recently published an insert for your Haggadah that makes relevant the work of Passover into a concrete issue people living in Illinois face today. This is precisely the type of work Passover and the Exodus story calls us to. I encourage you to download the insert and even if the issue is not applicable for you, make it an impetus for the type of investigative work necessary that transforms the Exodus from simply a story into an imperative.
Before we crash headlong into the various celebratory, lighthearted posts about Purim, I want to draw your attention to something: the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, is not actually a particularly happy one.
It is a parody of course, but like many parodies, it is rather dark. Starting with what appears to be the murder of the Queen for the crime of refusing to be displayed like a piece of meat, followed by a forced surrender of all “pretty” girls in the kingdoms from their homes, to the end, where the Jews defended themselves to the tune of the death of over 80,000 people, I find it somewhat difficult to find much that I like about the actual thing that we are supposed to be celebrating (I’m fine with the theme of survival, and of giving money to the poor and gifts of food to friends, though).
It seems to me that even though the rabbis still advocated celebration, there was this hint of darkness for them as well. In the Talmud, Megillah 7b, the following story is related:
Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’. Rabbah and R`Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R`Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.
This is the same sort of dark parody related by the megillah itself. Clearly, the punchline is that Rav Zera won’t come back for another round of “mellowing.” The drunkenness of Rabbah results in violence and death, which itself then leads to a miracle – but Rav Zera would prefer not to engage with that kind of miracle, thanks. The megillah, too, offers a miracle – but the miracle seems to be that we defended ourselves with a bloodbath. Perhaps because it is a parody, it’s okay to have zombie heads shooting off in every direction during the joyous finale, but I can’t help but ask whether we were, even as a parody, supposed to enjoin celebration in an abattoir. Were we, then, incapable of imagining an ending where we survived without harming others?
It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.'”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
Tu Bishvat, which begins tonight, is the fourth new year of the Jewish calendar. Beginning as a tax holiday for counting the age of trees in order to know when one could begin to use their fruit, the holiday has come to be a sort of Jewish version of earth day, as well as a celebration of the shivat haminim – the seven famous products of Israel and our connection to the land of Israel.
Although Jews lost many of our agricultural leanings after going into exile, trees are something that anyone can relate to, and many commentators have noted a connection between trees and human beings, and supported this connection with a verse from Deuteronomy.
The original verse is one which is part of Jewish rules of war, asking rhetorically, “When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, you shalt not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged?” (Dvarim 20:19)
Our rabbis took the verse not as a question, though, but as a statement: Humans are a tree of the field.
At this time of year, most trees (at least those in temperate climates) are bare. No one can tell if that tree will bear anything valuable or not – it is only the beginning of the year, and we will have to wait and see – will the sap rise in this tree? Will it flower? Will most of the branches live? Will the flower fruit, or will the blossoms fall unfertilized? Even if there is fruit, will it ripen, will animals eat it, will they rot on the tree?
There is no way to know yet. Similarly, with humans: we may be wise or foolish, righteous or wicked – until the sap rises, there’s no way to know. It is even true to a certain extent that how we grow is strongly influenced by our surroundings – is there a drought for learning, that leaves us ignorant of our own traditions? Are we forced to drink water which is muddy, or do we grow by a clear stream? Is there enough sun for us, or do we grow in the shade – and very importantly, is there someone to care for us, to make sure we grow straight?
But unlike trees, we also have some say over how we turn out. We may be trees of the field, but ultimately, we can choose to go where there is sun and water, to grow straight or be bent, to produce fruit, or to be a dry stick
By now it seems that the entire Jewish world is abuzz about Thanksgivukkah, the once in a lifetime convergence of Hanukkah (choose your spelling) and Thanksgiving. There are stories on NPR and The New York Times, sweet potato latke recipes everywhere you look, and even a kickstarter campaign by a fourth grader to design a “menurky” that raised $48,000. Perhaps the height of absurdity is that Thanksgivukkah even has its own Twitter account.
Why all the fuss?
Let’s be clear: the convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a big deal for Jews, but not so much for American society. Frankly, most non-Jewish Americans I have spoken with are mildly amused and politely supportive, but hardly excited about the overlap of the two holidays. For Jews, though, it is as if this year is Hanukkah’s debutante ball—a coming out party for the holiday to symbolize it finally warranting conversation within—if not wholesale merger with—American culture. I can’t help but wonder whether, for fairly secular Jews, the excitement stems from the fact that Hanukkah, for the first time in as long as I can remember, will not culturally serve as the ugly step-sister of the melodious, ornately decorated, and wholly secularized Christmas. It is being viewed as an equal, as the name Thanksgivukkah itself suggests.
But I would like to suggest a more constructive role for Thanksgivukkah. While some are bemoaning the merger of these two holidays, I think there are at least two reasons why both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike benefit from the convergence of the two. First, as my colleague Laura Duhan Kaplan eloquently wrote, Thanksgivukkah provides a wonderful opportunity for re-telling, and therefore revitalizing, the Hanukkah story. This is entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition, where Hanukkah has been retold, and reinterpreted, many times throughout our history (after all, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days doesn’t even appear in the two Books of the Maccabbees, but only “surfaces” centuries later in the Talmud).
Second, I think Thanksgivukkah has potential to be instructive and wisdom-creating for Jews and non-Jews. Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday for gratitude. It is, as its name connotes, a day for giving thanks for the bounty we enjoy in our lives. Gratitude, of course, is an important part of Judaism, as it is in all religions. It is the ethical posture with which we begin each day when reciting the prayer Modeh Ani. A famous Jewish saying, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1 posits:
Who is rich? One who appreciates what one has.” We are encouraged in the Talmud to recite 100 blessings each day (BT Menachot 42b) as a means of reflecting upon our good fortune and expressing gratitude.
But Hanukkah is not primarily about gratitude. It is about (re-)dedication. Gratitude is (at least within Judaism) inherently passive, a mental process of reflection and appreciation, of self-cultivation. Dedication is about taking action, about embodying values, about doing what is necessary to enable a life of sacred meaning. The original purpose of celebrating Hanukkah (outside of the sordid political machinations of the Hasmoneans that, frankly, would make the Borgias dynasty blush) was to enable the Judeans to celebrate the fall harvest of Sukkot which they hadn’t previously been able to due to the profane state of the Temple under Seleucid rule. That is what the “dedication” was all about, and also why Hanukkah and Sukkot are both 8 days long. This lesson of dedication, of action in pursuit of the holy and the good, is one which all of American society would do well to receive. Especially in Washington, we do a great job of talking ad nauseum, but we seem incapable of even the most common-sense action.
Of course, action in pursuit of the holy, unmediated by gratitude, can lead to the zealotry that ultimately destroyed Judea and is currently causing unspeakable tragedy throughout the Middle East. But gratitude unmediated by dedicated action equals mere platitude; it is a Hallmark card that is politely read and then thrown away. The duality of gratitude and dedication is what makes Thanksgivukkah a truly special holiday. So let’s take advantage of Thanksgivukkah this year and spread the message of why we, as Americans, need both gratitude and dedication if we want to prosper as a society. After all, it is going to be another 70,000 years before we have another opportunity to do so!