Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Greatest Miracle

I am endlessly amazed by our great city. It is one of the most exciting places in the world to live. People in our congregation, people you run into any day on the streets around here, are committing to changing the world, and making it a better place. Perhaps that’s why it’s all the more shocking to realize that Washington DC is a city racked with terrible poverty and injustice. You wouldn’t know it walking around this lovely Northwest section of the District. But you only have to go a couple of miles from here, to other neighborhoods, and the city looks radically different: dangerous neighborhoods, crime, drugs, desperation. When you study the statistics, the numbers are staggering: one out of eight households in the District of Columbia struggles with hunger-related issues. The number of families on the foodstamp program in the District is at an all-time high, with 120,000 residents—one fifth of the population of this city—using foodstamps. In recent months, perhaps because of the economic downturn, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people needing food from local food banks and pantries. Some of these establishments are struggling to keep up with demands. Kristin Roberts is a community nutrition associate for DC Hunger Solutions, which is an advocacy and policy organization for federal food programs. In a recent publication from American University,[1] Roberts dispelled the myth that high demand for food only corresponds to the colder winter months. In many ways, she explained, it’s worse in the summer months because so many DC children don’t have access to inexpensive or free meal programs in the DC public school system. The problem is that bad. Hunger and dire poverty is not something just in Haiti or Africa or the Third World. It’s right here. It’s just a matter of blocks from here.

This week in the Torah, we have reached the end of the book of Genesis. We’re on the cusp of the end of the year. We have come through thanksgiving and Hanukkah. We are so grateful for blessings that we have as we reach endings and new beginnings: our lives, our health, the gifts we possess, the food on our table. In the Torah this week, we see a window into the Jewish notion of gratitude for life’s blessings. We all understand gratitude. It is one of the most noble of human responses to life’s goodness. In Hebrew, we call it Hakarat HaTov, which literally means ‘recognition of the Good.’ But in Judaism, gratitude goes far beyond a simple full-hearted recognition. As with all things, Judaism sees in gratitude a powerful call to action. In the Torah, we read the famous moment where the dying old Jacob blesses his beloved son Joseph through Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. In his blessing, Jacob says, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, God who had been my Shepherd from the day of my birth until this day,” “HaMalakh HaGo’el oti mikol ra,” “The angel who has redeemed me from all harm – bless these lads.” (Gen. 46:33)

In this famous and powerful blessing, we find the core of the blessing that parents have blessed sons with for thousands of years at the Shabbat table—“Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chi Menasheh,” “May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.” That blessing began with Jacob’s expression of gratitude to God for having survived so much hardship, so much travail, to be reunited with his beloved son Joseph, to live to see his grandsons saved from hunger and starvation when famine had plagued the land. And yet, when we contemplate this blessings, there is something strange about it. First, Jacob recognizes God who has been his protection, but then he also recognizes the ‘malakh hago’el,’ the saving Angel. Is the angel just another way of referring to God, or is he saying he has had two protectors in his life?

In the Talmud,[2] our ancient sages teach that indeed, Jacob seems to refer to two different kinds of protection in this blessing. Rabbi Yochanan taught the following: “ Fending off hunger is more difficult than redemption. How do we know that? Redemption, explains Rabbi Yochanan, requires only the assistance of an angel, as it says, “HaMalakh HaGo’el oti mikol ra,” “The Angel who saved me from all harm.” Fending off hunger, on the other hand, requires direct divine intervention, as it says, “God who has been my shepherd.”

In this fascinating teaching, Rabbi Yochanan makes a radical claim: that putting food on your table is a greater miracle than Redemption itself! In Judaism, we typically think of Ge’ulah, of Redemption as the greatest kind of miracle. The redemption from slavery in Egypt, redemption from captivity, redemption from any kind of dire straits the Jewish people have known at the hands of tyrants and oppressors throughout our history—all of these great redemptions, according to Rabbi Yochanan, take a back seat to the miracle of ending hunger itself. Any act of redemption from oppression, says Rabbi Yochanan, is something that God could simply send an angel to carry out if God wanted. But ending hunger, this requires the direct and miraculous hand of God! The implications of this teaching are enormous.

Think about what Jacob experienced in his life. He had lived in exile from his home, and he is thankful and grateful for sending him an angel of Redemption who brought him out of harms way. But Jacob also lived through a devastating famine. All food disappeared. But it wasn’t just a rescuing angel, it was God who turned the wheel of fate itself and placed his son Joseph at Pharaoh’s right hand to set about a complex chain of miraculous conditions that saved him from that hunger. It wasn’t just one redeeming act or angel that saved him, it was a mind-boggling process of twists and turns of life’s journey that miraculously brought him and his family up from the jaws of almost certain death of starvation. And for this, he is grateful only to God. Only a God could give him a blessing of this awesome magnitude.

What’s true for Jacob is true for you and for me. There is no greater miracle than the fact that we, through forces way beyond our control or influence, are able to have food on our tables three meals a day. If you want proof that there is, indeed, a God, look no further than your full belly after any meal you have today. You and I have been blessed more than any words can say. How many countless conditions have come together to enable us to enjoy the blessings that we have at this moment? The fact that we have been born to the families that we have, in the time and place in history that we have been born into; the fact that we have had access to the kinds of education and opportunities that we have had. Any of these individual conditions have been our “redeeming angels.” But when we put it all together, this is God giving us the gift of our lives.

The vast majority of the world, as well as the people who live just a matter of blocks away from us, haven’t had these angels to redeem them. They haven’t yet felt the hand of God feeding them in the ways that they need. And so, our very essence and purpose in the world is to be the bnai Yisrael, the children of Israel—the descendants of Jacob. Our purpose is our Hakarat HaTov, our recognition, like Jacob himself, of the goodness and blessings and redemptions that we have been given so that we can be the redeeming angels for those who have not yet been blessed. Collectively, our greatest purpose is to be the very hand of God acting in the world to bring the greatest miracle of all—the end to hunger and poverty and injustice in this world.

Thank God, here at Adas Israel, we have our Ezra Pantry food collection and our partnership with SOME, So Others Might Eat. We have our Anne Frank House that provides housing for the homeless, as well as our partnership with other food collection agencies like Project Isaiah, as well as our partnership with N Street Village on Christmas Day and throughout the year. And there are many other fine organizations and opportunities as well through our congregational community, and either I or Rabbi Feinberg will be happy to talk to you further about getting involved in our Tikkun Olam, Repair the World, projects.

For the Jewish people, gratitude for life’s blessings is only the beginning. Our gratitude for our Torah, for our blessings, for God’s deliverance of us, is our motivation to take action to transform this world. May, indeed, our gratitude be our gift that we share with all those in our midst, and around the world, who do not yet feel that gratitude. May God continue to bless us with all that is good, and may all the peoples of this world come to know that goodness as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Evolution of Hanukkah

Perhaps you have heard some Jews laugh and brush off Hanukkah: “If only people knew how relatively minor and insignificant Hanukkah is,” they say, “they would never make such a big deal of it.” Have you ever heard this before: “It’s not that Hanukkah isn’t important—of course, it’s an important holiday about a miraculous victory of the Maccabbees,” they say. “It’s just that, compared to major holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach, Hanukkah can’t—if you’ll excuse the expression—hold a candle!” I grew up hearing this message about Hanukkah, that it’s a nice, pretty holiday, but it’s not that important. And implied in this is the rather guilt-provoking message: You know, Jews of America, if you were more serious about your commitment to observance, you’d know that Hanukkah is getting more press than it deserves. And more than this, the secret that we Jews have to acknowledge is that the only reason Hanukkah gets all the attention it does is because of Christmas. All the Jewish kids who were jealous of their Christian friends getting presents resulted in the mass marketing of Hanukkah right alongside Christmas. So we Jews get to feel guilty, not only because we’re not observant enough, but also because we’re just copying Christians. We can all feel guilty because, ironically, Hanukkah, the holiday that is all about resisting assimilation, has become the purest expression of American assimilation.

We have to acknowledge that there’s some truth in all of this. But it’s only partial truth. As time goes by, I see a deeper message in the American Jewish experience of Hanukkah. Hanukkah really is a beautiful holiday about miracles, about victory against all odds, about the triumph of the spirit, about lighting up the darkness. But for so many Jews today, Hanukkah has more nuances and layers of meaning. In more and more houses, you see Hanukkah menorahs proudly displayed next to Christmas trees. And I mean proudly. Hanukkah, more and more, is evolving a message that it didn’t have in generations past: it’s a way of affirming the meaning of Jewish identity in the uniquely accepting multiculturalism of 21st-century America.

Generations ago, in the old country, our ancestors proudly placed menorahs in their windows as an act of defiance and courage. The outside world, symbolized by the darkness of this time of year, was an unsafe and rejecting place of anti-Semitic violence and betrayal. The message was clear: We stood up for who we are, and despite the hatred of the surrounding nations, despite their overwhelming strength and numbers, we prevailed. But it’s different now, here in America. The menorah now isn’t so much shining out into the dark night as it is illuminating the home within. More and more Jews aren’t observant. They might not believe in God. And yet, they will light that menorah. They will sing the dreidel songs with their children, they’ll make the latkes. Why? Because being Jewish matters to most American Jews. It’s something we’re proud of. Even if Kashrut and Shabbat haven’t found a way into the family’s home observances, Hanukkah works! It is accessible, powerful, and beautiful. Its message can be seen clearly in both its particularist and universalist dimensions. Both conventional and intermarried families can fully access this wonderful way to celebrate Jewishness.

We’re witnessing the evolution of Jewish observance in America. What’s happening before our eyes, frankly, is what has happened with all Jewish holidays over the centuries: they evolve. They take on new dimensions of meaning depending on the social and cultural conditions within which the Jews find themselves. And the new, American-Jewish dimension of Hanukkah is truly magnificent. Its message is: Here we are! We have made it in America! We’re really an accepted, successful, beloved people in this wonderful blessing of a society that is America.Our lives are multifaceted. Our choices for who to be and how to be are infinitely more complex than those of our ancestors. We are Jewish, yes, but we are also secular in many ways. We have access to multiple belief systems that we hold in the cognitive dissonance of our identities. We’re more and more intermarried. And yet, despite it all, the light of who we are as Jews has not gone out. To the contrary, it burns stronger and stronger. Our Jewish heritage, while so different now from what it was for our grandparents, is something we will proudly pass to our children.

In this day and age, in 2010—5771—Hanukkah truly is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It is a cause for wild celebration. It is the shining light that reminds us that, despite dire predictions a generation ago, assimilation and intermarriage are not the death knell of the Jewish people. We are alive and well and proud to be who we are. It’s just that who we are is different now from what we were before. And this evolution of our people is good. It is a miracle. So this year, enjoy Hanukkah. Celebrate the light no matter who you are, whether observant, or secular, or not even Jewish. And while you’re celebrating, remember its message: that the spirit of this remarkable people is a light that burns brighter all the time, promising to be an ever-evolving blessing for generations to come.