We all know people who at some point in their lives may be suffering or depressed and give up hope for any change or improvement. They experience a total sense of powerlessness in their lives and we experience it as well in our efforts to help them. Within our tradition, there is even one startling passage in the Talmud that suggests that during the Hadrianic persecutions in 135 CE, the Jewish people should have refused to have any more children and cease existing within a generation. One can only imagine the despair that must have been felt by the author of that passage.
This week’s Torah reading begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. After the brothers sell Joseph and deceive their father Jacob with a bloodied coat, Jacob falls into inconsolable mourning and refuses to be comforted for the loss of Joseph. The next chapter begins with Judah going down, leaving his brothers and family.
“… and Judah went down from his brothers .…” (Genesis, 38:1)
The Ishbitzer comments on this verse: Why did Judah go and wed a wife at this particular time? As he saw how Jacob refused to be consoled, and as he was the one who had to bring Joseph’s coat to his father, he became greatly depressed, and felt as if, God forbid, there was no more hope. So he went to marry a wife, saying, “perhaps I will have good children from whom will grow an everlasting structure.”
Then afterward, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused him to understand the following. If, God forbid, it is as you think, and there is no hope for you, and you have no life at your root, if so, then even if you give birth to a hundred, they will not have any more life than you. For with the blessed God, the channel through which He sends life must itself be of life. Then, if it is as you think, that you will only have temporary life, then it will be so also with your descendants. Therefore, when he arrived at the clarification of the matter, he fathered Shela, his name Shela meaning misled, the mistake he made in this matter. This is why his first two sons died, and Shela remained alive.
This is a profound teaching. Only those with some hope, even if only a spark, can truly nourish a hopeful future. To create a family there must be a sense of life at one’s core.
In my own work, I have had the pleasure and honor of being the rabbi at many weddings. Some have ended in divorce. This happens. But what is truly sad is couples I knew who decided to have children after they had already determined the marriage was over, deluding themselves that a child would restore the love of the couple. It does not work this way and the divorces happened anyway and for the better of the couples and their children.
Hanukah begins Saturday night. Some commentaries emphasize that the true miracle of Hanukah was not that the menorah stayed lit for eight days, but rather that the people took the initiative to light it even though they had only enough oil for one day. Hope created the miracle, or perhaps was the miracle itself.
Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.
As the eight days of Chanukah wind down, I am thinking of a question I posed as the festival began – who is the real hero of the story? When I asked this question of a class at the synagogue, I was not surprised at the first response: the oil. We then had a spirited discussion about the other possible heroes and realized we didn’t have a clear-cut conclusion.
Now, a week later, I realize why.
First, let’s talk about the oil. How could the oil be a hero? I admit to frustration for the way this story is told and passed from one generation to the next. With such a powerful story of Jewish survival, resting on guts and smarts and passionate commitment to the Jewish people, the watered-down version of the story that leaves out the essential message is more than a disappointment. It is a huge missed opportunity to reinvigorate pride and commitment to covenantal Judaism and the Jewish people.
Then there is the obvious second choice for the hero: Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors who fought valiantly to defeat an oppressive tyrant who threatened Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, and crushed Jewish learning and devotion during a time of confusion and change. “The Maccabees”, as they came to be known, saved Torah and the Jewish people. While this heroism inspires our generation, it still does not define us. Jews outside of Israel do not take up arms to defend the right to be Jews. And we pray for a time when Jews in Israel no longer need to do so as well.
There are the mythic heroes, not as often recalled. Hannah and her seven sons, a story of a mother who witnesses the martyrdom of her sons one after the other until her own death, has been an inspiring story for generations of Jews who were disempowered and persecuted, sometimes facing martyrdom themselves. Given the choice between eating pork/worshipping idols or death, Hannah’s family gives their lives rather than giving in. Visiting a typical “Jewish deli/kosher style” restaurant (as is common in Northern New Jersey) that boasts matzah ball soup alongside bacon and eggs, it seems clear that few Jews are motivated by Hannah’s sons’ passion for keeping the commandments as such. Nor are American Jews afraid that we must be prepared to give our lives to save Judaism itself.
Then there is the mythic Judith of the extra-biblical Apocrypha, who single-handedly saves the Jewish community by seducing and then beheading the general Holefernes, whose army is threatening the Jewish community. Judith’s story is great fodder for feminists at this time of year, the counterpoint to Judah Maccabee, and indeed an inspiring heroine. But with the memory of physical threat to Jewish survival fading for younger Jews, Judith’s courageous story (though a bit barbaric) is relegated to an interesting past with little connection to the present.
For American Jews, a new model is needed. Who is our hero?
In North American today, the hero of Chanukah is the person who raises Jewish children in a secular world and teaches them to love and cherish the blessing of being a member of the Jewish people. This hero uses the American blessing of individual empowerment to better the Jewish experience for their family and for all Jews. Embracing both the American and the Jewish civilizations in which they live, this hero teaches their children to recognize and honor the integrity of Jewish distinctiveness. This hero appreciates and honors the value of other religious traditions and people of faith, but cherishes the primacy of their Jewish identity. This hero demonstrates love for Jewish wisdom and ideals, culture and customs, by creatively, lovingly, energetically, and thoughtfully infusing contemporary Judaism into their home.
This is our new Chanukah hero, fighting against the forces of assimilation by embracing and shaping Judaism for themselves and the next generation. As I look around at my community, I see many Chanukah heroes. And that is the miracle of Chanukah.
But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.
The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.
With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!
I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.
So can we make some miracles?
Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.
We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.
With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.
We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!
Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!
Hanukkah (the first candle is lit on the evening of Dec. 20, 2011) is the Jewish holiday which celebrates miracles. One custom at our home is that on each night of Hanukkah we light candles, say blessings, and then, before any gifts are exchanged or dreidels spun, each member of the family shares a miracle story. What is a miracle? A miracle is better defined as “an event whose cause is inexplicable by the laws of nature or science, and is therefore attributed to the Divine.”
Miracles sound different to the very young than they do to adults, and, frankly a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. They are, most often very personal, and from any other person’s perspective, could just as easily be attributed to good luck. I remember twenty years ago, during my interview for Rabbinical school, I was asked the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”
“Was the Red Sea’s parting a miracle?”
“I don’t believe I can really know which event is or isn’t a miracle,” I answered, “For me, it’s enough to know that they happen.”
I’ve come to this comfortable place about miracles. If someone has a story to share that he or she considers miraculous, I ask myself the question, “Is there any harm in me accepting this as miraculous? What if I’m wrong?” Truth is, I’m wrong about so much about ‘factual life’ that the harm in being wrong once more is not a dangerous risk. Consider the following story a former congregant shared with me about her mother who stayed home with her grandson so that mom could return to work:
Bubbe Shirley spent (‘Bubby’ is a Yiddish term of endearment for grandmother) every day with Benjamin, and they loved each other very much. It was Bubby Shirley that took little Benny to and from pre-school, who took him to the store, sang songs with him, and best of all walked along the beach picking up shells with Benny. It was terrifying to the whole family when Bubby Shirley discovered that she had stage IV breast cancer, that the tumors had metastasized, and that her lungs and liver were compromised. The clock was ticking. There was no sense in operating, but there was time for a family trip. Bubby Shirley took her daughter and grandson to Florida, where on another walk along the beach she and Benny found their biggest shell ever, a conch shell in which one can hear the sound of the ocean or blow into it and make a deep trumpet sound.
Soon after Bubby Shirley died. Her daughter was beside herself, not just for her own loss, but her son’s.
On the first day of kindergarden Benny’s mother was in the kitchen crying, her mother should have been here for this. She pulled herself together, for Benny, and went to his room to leave. Benny sat on his made bed with his Barney backpack on, and the conche shell to his ear like a telephone.
“OK, Benny, it’s time to go.”
“Shhh,” he said, “It’s Bubby Shirley.”
Benny’s mother thought that maybe he was worried about taking such a big step without his grandmother. Perhaps she could find out what specifically he was worried about.
“What are you telling her,” she asked. “I’m not saying anything. She’s talking to me.”
“What is she saying?”
“She said that she’s fine and that you will be too,” and with that he hung up the shell and was ready to go.
Is there a great risk in believing that a connection between heaven and earth was being made? My opinion is ‘no’. I prefer to suspend judgement. The troubling things in life have a way of seeming bigger than they really are, why not allow the miraculous a chance as well.
Hag Urim Sameach (Happy Holiday of Lights). May this season fill you and yours with the sense of the closeness of the miraculous.
P.S. Inspire others. Post a miracle story.