Just Show Up!

Sometimes, as a friend says, we deserve a standing ovation for just showing up. The truth is, even those of us who seem most passionate about our Jewish lives are not always “fired up” for every mitzvah or every religious occasion. Sometimes, the best we can do is just show up. Fortunately, our tradition recognizes this ebb and flow of human motivation.

In the midst of a discussion about Chanukah, the rabbis in the Talmud (Bavli 22b) ask an essential question about the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles. What exactly is the mitzvah of Chanukah? “Hadlakah osah mitzvah?” Is the mitzvah of Chanukah to actually light the candles, or “hanacha osah mitzvah,” is placing the chanukiah sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah?

The Talmud—and ultimately, Jewish law—chooses hadlakah (lighting) as the mitzvah. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah, one must actually light the candles, as the blessing we say teaches us: “lehadlik ner shel Chanukah.”

The beauty of Talmudic discussions, of course, is that even the defeated position takes on significance and the question itself—about the essential mitzvah of Chanukah—becomes the centerpiece of a Chassidic teaching. For Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the eighteenth-century Kedushat Levi, both hadlakah (lighting the candles) as well as hanacha (placing the chanukiyah) have their spiritual importance. The focus on lighting the candles reminds us that religious actions must be done with hitlahavut, enthusiasm, a kind of fiery passion and excitement, but placing the chanukiyah (hanacha) also has its role in religious life.

Sometimes, suggests the Kedushat Levi, all we can manage is simply to place the chanukiah. Not every moment is fiery! Hopefully, we have many moments when we are kindled with excitement for Jewish life, when we have a strong desire to do the mitzvot with passion. However, we also have times when we may feel a sense that the internal flame is not lit, when we may not be able to find the internal combustion that is required for the enthusiasm, the hitlahavut, of the lit candles. By recognizing the importance of hanacha, the Kedushat Levi acknowledges that in these moments, we can still do a religious act. Yes, the mitzvah is the lighting of the candles, but placing the menorah in the window counts, too; showing up is halfway there.

The Chassidic text recognizes the reality of religious life. No matter how we may feel, we can access the meaning and power of Chanukah, even outside of the mitzvah itself. In the hanacha, in setting up our chanukiyah, we express faith in the potential for the candles to awaken the light within us. Our passion will come again; it will be rekindled. May the lights of Chanukah (and this much-needed and well-deserved vacation!) help to fire up that inner flame for each of us.

Chanukah Sameach! 

Love is love


Post-engagement thoughts, as seen this week in the Wexner newsletter.

For me, Tu B’Av is not simply a Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.  While it is celebrated as a day of romantic love, the days surrounding Tu B’Av send a deeper message.  More than three weeks ago, as we began our period of mourning, Jeremiah (2:2) reminded us that God thinks of us as God’s young bride.  On the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av and Tu B’Av, Parshat Va’Etchanan brings us the Shema, which reminds us that V’Ahavta (you shall love God) is one of our core commandments.

This concept of loving God may be challenging to many of us who struggle with our faith, but perhaps this metaphor can teach us a powerful lesson.  Love is not something that is only found through romantic partnership.   God’s love represents the love that surrounds us everywhere: in our families, in our friendships and in our communities.

As our culture focuses on romantic love, we can remember that love comes in many forms.  Studies show that single people with deep friendships and community relationships are just as happy as those in couples.  The texts we read in the weeks around Tu B’Av remind us that even those in our communities without partners are surrounded by love.   God’s love, the love of friends, family and community and the love of a romantic partner are all of a piece.  Lin-Manuel Miranda has it right: love is love is love is love.  Happy Tu B’Av!

Rebuke without shame: a model for spiritual discipline

Disciplining students is tricky business. On the one hand, as educators and parents, we are committed to building character, developing ethical behavior, and teach young people how to behave well in the world. At the same time, though, modern psychology has taught us the importance of raising youth with confidence and self-esteem. It seems a fine art to offer a consequence without shaming those who have disappointed us.

Is there a way to do both things at once: to balance rebuke with forgiveness? Can we show our anger at a person’s actions and still acknowledge her core goodness?  As we struggle to walk this middle ground, we might find a model for best practices in this week’s parsha, in God’s relationship to the Israelite people.

At the beginning of Parshat Pekudei, Moshe is putting the finishing touches on the Mishkan Ha’Edut, the Tabernacle of Witness.  This term ‘edut’—meaning witness or evidence—is a strange descriptor for the mishkan. We have seen it before; the Tablets of the Covenant were called the luchot ha’edut (the Tablets of Witness), and the ark was named aron ha’edut (the Ark of Witness). This is the first time the Tabernacle itself claims the title. What does the term represent, especially when it refers to the mishkan as a whole?

The 19th century Chassidic rebbe the Sfat Emet suggests that God used the mishkan as ‘edut’ for the people, a sign that we were worthy to experience God’s presence again after the sin of the Golden Calf. “The Holy One gave them ‘edut’ [evidence] through the mishkan to strengthen their hearts and to show them that they had fixed the entire sin of the Golden Calf, until God taught the people that the sin was not their ‘etzem’ [their core] but rather simply a ‘mikreh’ [an event].”

In the eyes of the Sfat Emet, the mishkan represented a beautiful and loving act on the part of God. First, we were forgiven–entirely—for the sin of the Golden Calf. Second, there was a deep understanding of our goodness as a people. The sin was merely an act we had done; it was not who we were at the core. In this regard, the Torah was sharing a universal message. As the Sfat Emet continues, “this was to teach everyone who wants to do tshuvah that he should not fall too far in his own eyes.”

Imperfect as we are, human beings do require discipline at times, but, fragile as we are, we need forgiveness just as much.  What if we understood ourselves as God sees us, recognizing that even our worst actions do not define us and that there is always room for tshuvah?  God’s educational model– discipline with a heavy dose of forgiveness and love– is a powerful one. May we merit the equanimity to practice this model in our own work and in our own lives. Shabbat Shalom.

When the miracle happens… will you notice?

It would certainly seem like a “sign” to me.

Abraham’s servant Eliezer—tasked with finding a wife for Isaac—designs a personality test which will show him the right woman for Isaac.  The right woman will not only offer to give him water but will also offer to water his camels.  Eliezer offers this as direction in his prayer to God.  Otah hochachta l’avdecha l’Yitzchak, “she is the one you have designated for Isaac (Genesis 24:14).”  It is, evidently, a good test. The moment he offers this prayer, even before he has finished saying it, Rebecca appears and offers to give him water and to water his camels!

What are the odds?  How unbelievable is it that this young woman does exactly what he has just requested!  And yet, Eliezer’s response to Rebecca’s generosity is a strange one. Instead of immediate relief, a jump for joy, or spontaneous prayer, Eliezer stops and stares.  V’ha’ish mishta’eh lah, macharish lada’at hahitzliach Adonai darko im lo. “And the man was astonished at her, staying silent, to know if God had made his path succeed or not (24:21).”

“Or not?” How could Eliezer wonder if this was the right woman? Rashi gives us an entire grammatical lesson on the word mishta’eh, “astonished,” offering us explanation of all the possible derivations of the word.  As Aviva Zornberg writes in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Rashi’s commentary here “enfolds a poetic range of meanings—not simply ‘surprised’ or ‘waiting,’ but ‘transfixed,’ ‘devastated,’ ‘confused,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘charged with thoughts’ (p. 142) .”

What was going on in Eliezer’s mind?  What was he waiting for? The Torah invites us to interpret this hesitation, offering us a glimpse but not a complete understanding of Eliezer’s thought process.  The Or Hachayim suggests that perhaps he was waiting to see if Rebecca would actually complete the task she had offered to do.  Nahum Sarna reminds us that a single camel requires at least twenty-five gallons of water, drinking for almost ten minutes, and Rebecca was watering at least ten camels!  Robert Alter calls this task “the closest anyone in Genesis comes to a feat of Homeric heroism.”

Or perhaps Eliezer was just astounded that his prayer had actually been answered, and he needed a moment to take it in.  Wait!  I think this is exactly what I had asked for… but do I really believe it? Only later does he thank God for providing the answer to his prayer.

It may take us a few moments to recognize the miracles in our lives. What happens when it all goes right?  We may feel a sense of panic, confusion, or even terror.

Human beings are naturally skeptical. Even when we get exactly what we want, we hesitate to call it a miracle.  We are slow to recognize God’s role in the process. We may need to sit back and stare for a moment, watch what is happening, and only then, acknowledge: “Wow, prayer received.  I never expected that to happen. Thank you.”

Flimsy sukkah, delicate peace

This year, as Hurricane Joaquin approaches during the holiday of Sukkot, we feel more than ever the fragility of sukkah design.  Those partial walls, lightly attached corners and strangely layered schach that have served us so well year after year suddenly seem flimsier than usual.  In this climate, we may be particularly aware of the irony of asking God to spread over us a sukkat shalom, a Sukkah of Peace.   Do we really want shalom that is so flimsy?  Are we actually asking God for peace that is so temporary? With the storm threatening to topple our sukkot, we may be craving more of a binyan shalom (a building of peace), or better yet, a mivtzar shalom (a fortress of peace)—unshakeable, immovable, and eternally durable.

Of course, it is the sukkah’s very flimsiness that is its essential element. The Talmud lists a number of odd loopholes for building a sukkah. For example, as long as a wall comes close enough to the ground (under three handbreadths, or about 10 feet), the law of lavud considers it as if it is touching the ground.  More than that, if a wall of the sukkah is only 10 feet high, the law of gud asik mechitzta treats it as if it goes all the way up to the heavens.  Finally, if there is an awning attached to the wall of a sukkah, the law of dofen akumah says we just pretend it’s a crooked wall and sit under the schach which is attached to the awning, as if it were attached to the wall itself.  These are just a few of the strange set of regulations that might make us wonder. With all of the fake walls and pretend corners, it’s as if the sukkah is an imaginary space!

An imaginary space, indeed.  It turns out a little imagination is exactly what we need if we are to live the religious life. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University, pointed out in a 1964 sermon (amazing what you can find online!), it is these very illusions that are at the cornerstone of faith.  “Pity the man,” he writes, “who prides himself upon possessing ‘common sense,’ who ‘sticks only to facts,’ and who has nothing to do with sentiment or illusion.”  Lamm quotes the poet John Ciardi from Saturday Review, who wrote,

It is always a mistake to discuss poetry with a man who insists that it must make sense… For the trouble with being sensible is not the sense it does or does not make, but the life it never really manages to get to. It always manages to shut as many doors as it opens…

A little illusion makes possible those things in life that are beyond exact, consistent measure:  love, beauty, faith.  It is also precisely what we need to build a life of meaning.

No wonder, then, that the tradition calls for the metaphor of the delicate sukkah when we pray for peace. Leave the bricks and concrete for other purposes.  Like a sukkah, peace requires a bit of flexibility, a few ambiguities and a blind eye to some of the precise measurements that may not fit exactly.  It also needs to be rebuilt and re-patched every time a new storm comes around.  With a little imagination, the joy we bring to our sukkot can help us to envision a world of peace, where walls, or perhaps more importantly, doors, can be rebuilt again and again, imperfectly and with plenty of loopholes.

A Second Chance for Second Chances

Sometimes, even second chances need second chances. About a month ago, on the 14th of Iyyar, I considered writing a blog post about Pesach Sheini and second chances.  I never actually wrote the post. This week I was asked to write a column for Parshat Behaalotcha—where Pesach Sheini is described in the Torah. A second chance at “second chances!”  I’m reaching for the text again, asking it to teach me something worth sharing.

The Book of Numbers tells the story of a group of men who could not observe Passover “in its appointed season,” as Moses commands.  They approached Moses and Aaron, worried that they would have to miss the Pesach sacrifice.

And those men said unto [Moses]: ‘We are unclean by the dead body of a man; why are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?’  (Numbers 9:7)

Moses returned to the men with God’s permission to bring the Pesach sacrifice a month after the proper time.

‘If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey on a distant road, he shall keep the passover unto the LORD; in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it.’ (Numbers 9:10-11)

If you were unable to make it the first time, God seems to be saying, try again. One month after Pesach, the 14th day of Iyyar, we are given a second chance.

I love what Jonathan Mark wrote in the Jewish Week about the text:

 ‘Death’ and ‘distant roads,’ rebbes explained, also refers to sadness and disconnection. Anyone who missed doing what he or she had to do, be it on a Passover or in other circumstances, essentially could go back in time if his or her yearning was true enough. Nothing broken was beyond repair. After all, time itself is an earthly concept. Heaven is not confined by the laws of time.

According to Mark, Pesach Sheini allows us out of the confines of time.  It frees us from the idea that we are stuck in a cycle of aging and moving through time, with no rest point, no do-overs.  Pesach Sheini allows us to go back and do over, once in a while.

And the do-over does more than allow us to go backwards in time. The second chance also lets us move forward with a new perspective, with a kinder, gentler view of ourselves and the things we may have done imperfectly.

What were these men doing when they missed Passover?  The ancient midrashic text Sifrei offers three possibilities: they were carrying Joseph’s bones, burying Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, or caring for a met mitzvah (a corpse with no family to claim it).  In any of scenarios, one thing is clear; these men were involved in a sacred task.  Their excuse is entirely acceptable, their second chance merited.

Powerfully, the Sifrei offers these men the benefit of the doubt.  They must have had a good reason to miss the Pesach sacrifice, we can hear the rabbis explaining to themselves. They must have been doing something important.

What if we were to judge ourselves with that same approach?  To say to ourselves, “okay, you didn’t make it the first time, but there must have been a good reason.  You must have been involved in something important.  Can you let yourself off the hook and try again?”

Pesach Sheini offers us the opportunity to forgive ourselves for things we wish we had done differently, to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, let ourselves off the hook, and try again. It’s a gift to those of us who may not get everything right on the first try.  And isn’t that, really, just about everyone?


Struggling with Discipline: A week of gevurah

Ask any one of my students, past or present: discipline has never been my strong suit.  I tend to laugh more than yell, compliment more than critique, and, to my embarrassment, give many more As than Bs.

So today, the 9th day of the Omer, is a spiritually challenging day.  The second week of the Omer mystically focuses on gevurah (limits or discipline), and the second day of the second week asks us to turn our attention to gevurah shebe’gevurah— limits within limits. No easy task!  I want to bring chesed (love) to the study of Torah, and I hate the idea of turning someone off from Jewish learning with an overzealous disciplinary approach.  And yet, studies show that children and teens need limits– and fewer compliments– to build esteem. So maybe this is a useful quality to consider.

Today, I read Abaye’s comment in the Talmud as if it is addressed to me:

If a scholar is loved by the townspeople, their love is not due to her superiority but to the fact that she does not rebuke them for neglecting spiritual matters. (Ketubot 105b)

For me to be an effective educator, I need to remember that my goal is not to be loved, but to help my students arrive at their own spiritual goals, even with occasionally difficult conversations. Tomorrow the tradition asks us to focus on the beauty inherent in these very boundaries and limits, and throughout the week, I’ll be reflecting on how we might use gevurah in our teaching, our parenting, and in our lives, in general.  Join the conversation:  post your thoughts below.  How will you be working with gevurah this week?