Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seek Out the Light

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis ask a deceptively simple question: ‘Mai Chanukah?’ ‘What is Chanukah?’ It’s almost as if they’re not sure what it is, or why we celebrate it. What they really want to do is to get to the essence of Chanukah. And so they explain that when the Maccabees were victorious over the Syrian Greeks, they found only one cruise of oil for the menorah—enough only to last one day, and it burned miraculously for eight days. This, of course, is a far cry from what we read in our siddur—that the miracle was that God empowered us, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and a great military victory was won by the Jewish people in reclaiming the Land of Israel from its defilers. Lots of ink has been spilled explaining how the Talmudic rabbis wanted to de-emphasize the military aspect of Chanukah in favor of a more spiritualized one. As adults, we can all nod knowingly at each other, acknowledging that, while the miracle of the oil makes for great children’s books about Chanukah, the real miracle was military. We don’t need rabbinic simplifications to appreciate what we really commemorate on Chanukah.

But today, before we dismiss the miracle of the oil outright, I would like us to look again at why the rabbis had us focus on the light of that oil. They were not simply trying to cover over a military commemoration. The rabbis were much smarter than that. They wanted us to discover the real meaning of the miracle of Chanukah. You see, what happened way back around the year 167 B.C.E. was far more than a struggle against an oppressive power that outlawed Judaism and defiled the Temple. What happened was that it was the first time that there was a clash between conflicting worldviews, between two different visions for how the world should be. On the one hand, you had the Jews in the Land of Israel, upholding Torah, living for a vision of a world united in justice and holiness recognizing God as the source of all goodness and ethics. On the other hand, you had an idea called Hellenism, brought to the Middle East by Alexander the Great. With Hellenism came a different vision of one world—a world united by the values of humanism, informed by Greek philosophy and run according to the principles of government that the Greeks so famously brought to the world. Indeed, there was a military squabble in the Land of Israel, but unlike so many military clashes that preceded it in the ancient world, this clash was not just about the power of kings and territories; it wasn’t even a clash between gods. It was a clash of vision: which kind of world was it going to be, Greek or Israelite? And so, whatever the details, it wasn’t just that the Temple was defiled and that Judaism was outlawed—but an entirely new kind of phenomenon appeared in the world: the phenomenon of religious persecution. For the first time, the books of Maccabees, for example, record the memory of good, observant and pious Jews being tortured to death simply because they were observing the Torah. Simply because they upheld the laws of holiness and justice! This was never before seen in the world! Prior to this, there were enemies of Israel, of course, but they never attacked us because we were righteous! So we Jewish people were not just confronted with a military problem, we had a theological problem: How could bad things happen to good people? We never had to ask that question as a people before! And the miracle of Chanukah became our response to that question…

I once heard a wonderful story about a man whose Native American friend came to visit him in New York City. The Native American had never before been to New York, or to any big city. All day he gave his friend a marvelous tour, the East Side, the West Side, uptown, downtown. When night fell, he took him to see—what else?—Times Square, with its dazzling spectacle of lights and sounds. And as they stood there, gazing at it all, the Native American suddenly started looking up with a troubled, bewildered expression, his gaze darting here and there erratically. The man became concerned about his friend: “Are you alright?” he asked. “I just heard the call of a yellow-bellied warbler bird somewhere around here, and I’m trying to find him,” said the Native American. The man laughed, “My friend, there are many noises here, and maybe lots of pigeons, but I doubt that what you heard was a yellow-bellied…” He didn’t finish his sentence when his friend excitedly pointed “There he is!” And indeed, there on a ledge was the yellow bellied warbler! The New Yorker was flabbergasted! “How could you possibly do that!?” he asked. The Native American showed him. He reached into his pocket and scattered all his change on the sidewalk. Immediately, 150 heads turned and looked for where the sound of the change was coming from. “All these people come to the city in search of riches and bargains, so their ears are trained to listen for money. On my reservation, I spend my whole life listening for the sounds of the animals and the birds. It doesn’t matter where I go. I am always listening for their voices.”

This story has many resonances in our Jewish tradition. It was Moses who, as a shepherd leading his flocks through the desert, managed to notice a lowly bush in the distance, something that so many others might not bother to notice, and in that little thorn bush he found a vision not only of the Redemption of his people, but he also met the very presence of God. It was Rabbi Akiva who, as an illiterate and uneducated peasant yearning to learn Torah, noticed how the slow drops of water near a stream carved a hole into solid rock—drop by drop by drop. If even a rock can be penetrated one drop at a time, he reasoned, then if I begin to learn one step at a time, I can learn the whole Torah. And so, step by step, drop by drop, he became one of the greatest sages we have ever known. All because he noticed the simplest little thing that you or I might not even glance at. Something within these great men knew how to look, how to notice, how to see the wisdom in the subtlest and seemingly most insignificant of places…

Herein is the essence of the miracle of Chanukah, says the Sfat Emet. This great Hasidic commentery looks at our passage in the Talmud and explains: the number eight—for the eight days of Chanukah—is a symbolic number for our people. Eight means fullness, completeness, wholeness, like the eight days before a bris, or the eight days of a festival. And that one cruise of oil represents the light of the Jewish people—embattled, weary, persecuted, filled with so much doubt and torment because they had never seen such persecution before—so much so that all the light had almost gone out in their souls—rak nekudah achat nish’eret bahem: only one bit of light was left in them. But here, says the Sfat Emet, God helped them, ‘vnitbarchah zot hanekudah, ‘ ‘and that bit of light was blessed,’ ‘uva’u b’rega achat lechol hasheleimut,’ and it came in one instant back to its fullness, its wholeness again!’ (Sfat Emet, 1:211)

In this teaching, the Sfat Emet elucidates the incredible wisdom of the Talmud: even a military victory wasn’t enough to restore a people who had witnessed good and righteous people suffer and die because they were good and righteous. It was going to take a whole new kind of miracle. This moment was a great test of who we are as ‘Am Yisrael. Generations of our people had led up to this moment: keeping God’s commandments, upholding righteousness, lighting the lights of the Menorah in the Temple. And for what purpose? For this purpose: to train us to seek out the light. In the days of Matathias son of Yohanan, the Hasmonean Kohein, a new kind of cruel power rose against our people Israel, a new kind of darkness that we had not known before: the darkness of human evil and persecution. Innocent good people were massacred, women and children tortured to death simply because they were Jews faithful to the Torah. And indeed, a miracle happened. The miracle only started with the military victory. The real miracle was that we were willing to come back to that Temple, to rededicate it, purify it, and to seek out a way to find the light within it again—despite the cruelty of the world around us that we had never seen before. A thousand years before Chanukah, God commanded us to be an Or LaGoyim, light to the nations, to stand for Holiness, no matter who those nations around us were, no matter what they did. The miracle wasn’t that God made the oil last eight days, the miracle was that we sought out that oil, and lit that light in the first place, despite all the reasons to doubt, despite all the reasons to walk away, despite all the reasons to give up! There was so much darkness, and the light was barely a speck in our souls. But we had come so far, we learned to be a people of the light, to find a place for light when everyone else sees darkness. To find even the faintest of light in our heart, when others may never notice it. This is the miracle of Chanukah!

But the miracle doesn’t even end there. The act of finding that light works an even greater miracle: if you can find that light, however dim, then it ceases to be the faintest point of light, it instantly transforms itself to the fullness of light within our souls once again. That’s how the world really works! If you are listening for that little bird, the whole cacophony of city lights and sound melt away. In that measly little thorn bush, the fullness of Gods great presence was there, and the fullness of our Redemption from slavery could be found. In that little drop of water on the stone, the entire Torah opened up for that illiterate old peasant named Akiva. In that one cruise of oil, the entire promise that no one suffers in vain, that goodness, holiness, and justice can never be obliterated—no matter how cruel and unfair and unkind the world may seem—the light of this whole message is restored in our hearts and in our world.

The message of this miracle is still so critically relevant and important for each of us in our time. It doesn’t matter what the darkness that you may know: the darkness of economic insecurity, the darkness of war and violence, the darkness of injustice and oppression, the darkness of cancer or of the death of a loved one: seek out the light. Never give up looking for it. And it doesn’t matter how faint that light is. Even if you can find only the slightest glimmering, barely even noticeable at all—even if you can only find one moment’s peace, one ounce of strength, one act of kindness, only the slightest reason to have faith that life can be okay—if you find only that tiny one thing, then you have found the fullness of it all. This is the promise of Chanukah’s miracle: Ma’alin baKodesh v’lo Yordin: the holilness, the light, the peace, the healing will only increase and it won’t decrease, so long as we simply seek to find it. As the book of Proverbs says, “Ner HaShem Nishmat Adam “ the soul of man is the candle of God. We are the light. That light is always here. It can’t ever go out. May we always look ‘right here’ for that light, and when we find it, may we light up the whole world.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Power of Membership

Why be a member at a synagogue? The answer to this question is not at all as simple as it was a generation ago. Once upon a time, belonging to a synagogue was a given in American Jewish life. There were a host of unspoken bonds that linked us Jews to one another—ethnic bonds, Yiddish language and culture, first and second-generation immigrant values and aspirations—and synagogues were our gathering place. We may not have necessarily believed in God. We may have been secular in every other aspect of our lives. We may have attended synagogue only on High Holy Days. But synagogue membership was sacrosanct. By and large, we didn’t belong to country clubs, to the uppermost echelons of professional societies, and we didn’t attend the old-boy elite universities. Shul was where we gathered and affirmed that we belonged to something important, timeless and meaningful. Shul was where we accessed our time-honored traditions, where we felt special, where we could marshal our resources to look out for each other, and for Jews around the world.

Times have changed. We Jews have made it in America. There is hardly an elite institution or cultural achievement in this society where there is not a Jewish presence and influence. Yiddish language, culture, and ethnic identity—however beloved and cherished—has fallen into the background of our lived experience. Of course, there are still many Jewish people who still proudly support synagogues because of strong family traditions, strong ethnic sensibilities, and identification with Jewish particularism in the world. But for all the Jews who belong for the time-honored reasons, there are many more Jews today who do not feel that they need a synagogue to play its traditional role for them anymore. Jews today can belong to so many movements, so many institutions, so many means of finding and expressing meaning beyond the Jewish world. Ever-increasing numbers of 21st-century Jews no longer seek meaning through ethnic identification. We’re global citizens now. Many Jews today see just as much in common with other races and religious groups as we do with our ancestral religious and ethnic group. Our prevailing societal outlook is postmodern: we can and do invent ourselves. We still love being Jewish. We’re proud of it, in fact. But in our postmodern world, Judaism is a religion that we seek to customize to our identity. We want so much to fit Judaism in with our complex values-system. New kinds of minyanim abound, each with their own particular approach and “flavor” of Jewish expression. New kinds of places are springing up where people can customize their own bnai mitzvah, hire their own rabbis, and cut-and-paste their own prayer services to match their expectations.

With all of these new opportunities, new forms of Jewish identity, new expectations and values, why indeed be a member at a synagogue? The answer is that for all the wonders and blessings of this postmodern age, for all the access we have to power and meaning in today’s world, for all the new and deeper forms of personal meaning-making and identity that are available to us at the click of a button, synagogue membership still makes a claim on our soul that nothing else in this postmodern world can. It’s just that we have to talk about the meaning of membership in deeper and more engaging ways than we used to.

To become a member of a synagogue in today’s world is an extraordinary act. It’s something we can easily choose not to do. To do so, then, is not just about giving money to receive services. It is, first and foremost, an act of faith that this institution called a synagogue stands for something important in our lives, and in the world. Synagogue membership runs against the grain of postmodern expectation. In most settings nowadays, you give your money, you click that button, and you receive instant and personalized gratification. Not so in synagogues. Synagogue membership is about something deeper. You give your money so that you and your family benefit, yes, but also because other individuals and families will benefit from the very same services that you value. Those other individuals and families may be your friends, but they also may be people whom you don’t know at all. At times, they may even be people you don’t like! To be a synagogue member is to rise above all of that, and to acknowledge: “I may not know you at all, but I am responsible to you for no other reason than the fact that you and I share a common heritage that matters in the world. I am responsible to you because--just maybe--you and I share a common destiny to improve this world as Jews.” In other words, synagogue membership is an act of faith in the power of community to transform the world.

For all its wonders, our postmodern reality today hasn’t found a way to express this spirituality of community. Yes, we can find all kinds of sub-communities—communities of like-minded individuals whose outlooks, values, interests, and talents, match ours exactly! That’s exciting. That has lots of possibilities. But it’s not community in the Jewish sense of a Kehilah Kedoshah: a sacred community united by values that transcend individual preferences. To be a member of a synagogue means that you are expressing faith that the community will not only mirror your personal expectations and preferences, but it will also challenge you to question those very preferences and expectations by force of Torah and wisdom when circumstances demand that we be challenged. To be a member at a synagogue nowadays is an expression of faith that the synagogue just may inspire us to live in new and more meaningful ways. It’s an affirmation that we just may discover insight from an ancient heritage with thousands of years of collective wisdom. It’s an act of courage that we just may encounter individuals from among our people whom we may not know or understand well, but who may be the very teachers or motivators we need to live better as Jews in the world.

On the deepest level, synagogue membership is not just an act of faith. It’s an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness. The money we give as members is as much a symbolic act of giving as it is a literal one. The money symbolizes our presence for what the shul stands for. It symbolizes that we care about what it does, that its mission succeeds. It’s an act of Chesed because it it’s not about instant gratification! It’s an act of Chesed because we know that it’s going to make a difference not just for me now, but for generations after me. We give for our membership because we know that our funds will keep the lights and heat on, even if we’re not there. It will pay the salaries of the teachers of Torah who can enrich the soul of someone else’s child, if not my own child.

Our ancient sages teach that Chesed shel Emet, True Lovingkindness, is giving with no expectation of reward. This is the essence of synagogue membership in the 21st century. We belong not because we’re in it just to get something out of it. We belong because the very act of belonging is an act of kindness and giving, of being there for others beyond our personal self-interest. Nothing else that has come along in the past 25 years can hold a candle to the power of this kind of belonging. This is a message that we must get out to the world today, and we start by being the living examples of the power of membership. To belong to a synagogue confirms that we really can transform our lives—together. And together, from generation to generation, is the only way we can transform the world.