Who owns the earth? Is it right for some to be rich in every material way and for others to go hungry? Do some people have the right to refuse others the chance to decide where they want to live? How do we create a time or a space in which people cannot be identified in economic terms?
Leviticus takes up all these questions, and more.
Our final readings, B’har and Be?ukkotai, insist that the laws they reveal came from Sinai – despite the fact that Leviticus otherwise often describes its commandments as given over at the Tent of Meeting. But the author wants to make a point at the close of the book: All the Israelites were at Sinai. Everything we know and must know comes from that place of epiphany. B’har begins: “The Holy One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, and told him: ‘speak to the Israelite people.’”
And what should Moshe say?
Every fifty years the Israelites must mark a sacred time – for themselves and for the land. They must live off whatever the land produces on its own. During the Jubilee year the land is to be left to rest.
Leviticus gives us an idea so radical that it puts our own society to shame. In the fiftieth year, B’har says, we must remember that the earth and everything in it actually belongs to God. The Israelites are mere tenants. God has made the land available to the Israelites, but it may not be exploited for the enrichment of some to the detriment of others.
In the Jubilee year, on the day of Atonement, after the shofar has been blown a last, long, magnificent time, all land reverts back to its original apportioning. Rich or poor, all become equal not only in the eyes of God but in the actual reality they inhabit.
Unity is restored where it has been fractured or assailed. Those who have sunk into poverty will have their self-respect restored. No one can be defined in economic terms during this year. Just as Shabbat asks us to take a time apart from the market, so the Jubilee year asks us – as a whole society – to take a rest from a world defined by buying and selling.
The tenth verse of this parsha is inscribed on our Liberty Bell: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”
The Hebrew word translated as “release” is d’ror. But d’ror is also the name for a creature of liberty: the swallow. Just as we speak of a “pride” of lions, so one way to speak about swallows as a group is to describe them as a “flight” or “sweep.” The swallow has been called the “bird of freedom” because it cannot endure captivity. Swallows only mate when they are free, only in the wild.
We must be, then, so Leviticus, be free as birds. We must be released, given freedom of movement.
D’ror has also been read from the root dalet-vav-reish, “to dwell.” Leviticus 25:10 could also be telling us that people ought to be guaranteed the freedom to live wherever they wish.
We are living in a country where more tax breaks are in the offing for the wealthiest citizens among us – and we do well to remember the disparities we are talking about here: the top wealthiest one percent of Americans now own at least forty percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom eighty percent own a mere seven percent.
We are living in a country in which God’s own earth is under assault by those who wish to have unrestrained access to its wealth. National monuments and parks are at risk; some of our officials are so allergic to the word “regulate” that they seem to be willing to deregulate nature out of existence.
As for the chance to live free: last week, an officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services attempted to get into an elementary school in New York in order to question a fourth grader – a mere nine or ten-year old.
Leviticus tells us that no Israelite may be taxed beyond their means, that no Israelite should ever endure the shame of poverty, that the land needs to be respected and cared for and that freedom and liberty must be the bedrock on which we build our society.
Shouldn’t we listen to Leviticus – and fly free?
She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
“I saved you,” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
He read the poem again. He read it despite the protestations of the author’s family members who are well aware that the author would been horrified to find his work used to incite hatred. But that is our president and this, in part, is our America.
Today, the day after Donald Trump once again compared immigrants to treacherous snakes, I began a three-part series of classes with a local church group on the Book of Ruth.
The Book of Ruth is a narrative of immigrant experience. As such, it cannot be a mere idyll. In three verses we learn that an Israelite named Elimelech emigrates to Moab with his family to escape famine in Bethlehem only to die in a foreign land. His widow, Naomi, is “left over.” Her sons marry Moabite women, but they, too, die in Moab. The text hammers the point home again: she is “left over,” a remnant of sorts.
Naomi is an immigrant. There is no evidence that she is mistreated by the Moabite locals. She does not leave with her sons after her husband’s death. After they marry, she clearly grows to love Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law. While the narrator defines them according to their marital status, Naomi calls them b’notai, my daughters.
Places can define us. But relationships can change everything. After they lose their husbands, Orpah and Ruth plan to stay with their beloved mother-in-law. They insist that they will “return” with her, accompany her as she goes back to Bethlehem (1:10). As her daughters, they believe that her home is theirs.
Naomi protests. Perhaps she is afraid for them. Moabite women could hardly expect a warm welcome from Israelites. So she tells them they should return to their biological mothers. She has no more sons to give them, she says. Dreaming of the apparently impossible, she adds that even if she were to remarry and, miraculously, have more sons, it would be unkind to expect her daughters to wait for them to grow up.
Naomi does not just send Orpah and Ruth away; she believes that going “home” is their best choice. But not before desperately – even hopelessly – imagining what it would be like if she could offer them shelter, security and hope. Naomi did not wish to be separated from the women she called her daughters.
The first chapter in the Book of Ruth includes a number of variants on one Hebrew root: shin-vav-bet. Lashuv, tashav, shavah, nashuv, shov’nah… in twenty-two verses one or the other character is turning, returning, or told to turn around. Naomi will return to Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth plan to return with her. Naomi insists they turn around, go, essentially back-wards. Ruth insists that to do so would be to leave Naomi, and she begs her mother-in-law not to make her turn back.
Is our identity generated by the place of our birth or the places we adopt? Do the kin we are born to or the kin we embrace define who we are and who we wish to become? Turn, and you become a different person. Return, and you will find that those you missed have changed. You are a different person, too. Naomi discovers that her fellow Israelites will greet her and leave her. It is the widow’s Moabite daughter-in-law who sees she is fed, not her former neighbors. Ruth, in turn, will be treated as a cipher by those same Israelite women though they also extol her service to her mother-in-law: Ruth, they say, is better to Naomi than seven sons (4:15).
One wonders how Ruth endured being passed over as Obed’s mother and simultaneously praised for the decency with which she tends to Naomi, the Israelite. As an immigrant she seems to exist primarily to ensure that Israelite society and royal lineage is secured. All she has to do is brave a potentially dangerous nighttime encounter, marry Naomi’s choice for her, bring a son into the world and hand him over to the Israelites. They will call him their own. They will name him. They will say he belongs to Naomi.
If there is a snake in this story, it sure isn’t Ruth.
America does well because we use immigrant labor without regret, concern, or thanks. Immigrants are our farm workers and our school janitors. They are small business owners who employ American citizens. They work as computer scientists, nurses, and doctors. Without immigrants in this country, America will not have the workers it needs to pay to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent in the decades to come.
Immigrants work for privileged Americans hoping to be accepted and understood, imagining what it would be like to give freely, safely, and openly to their new home. Like Ruth, they are enterprising, interested, energetic.
And we citizens do as the ancient Israelites did to Ruth. We live off their labor, their contributions, and their taxes. I must ask the leader of the Free World, who is so quick to demonize the immigrant population in this country: Who is the snake?
“Leviticus is one of my favorite books,” I say, and the room goes still. Someone gulps quietly. Leviticus, they are thinking, that book of rules and regulations, that book about skin disease and diverse bodily emissions. Ugh.
Admittedly, our priestly manual contains whole chapters that seem simultaneously repetitive and obscure. But there’s a big idea here worth taking seriously: in Leviticus, in Vayikra, we learn that ritual embeds values.
Right away, we are told that there are many ways to offer ourselves to God. The gratitude expressed in the olah, the burnt offering, demonstrated our ancestors’ willingness to give without expecting reward. Making a zevach sh’lamim, a well-being offering, gave the individual Israelite a chance to offer thanks and share the wealth with others in the form of a communal meal. There are levitical rituals for reconciliation, for reparation, for teshuva.
Revelations can emerge from texts that seem, in a word, bizarre. Some years back, my community’s Torah study group read about a purification ritual involving a recipe which included mixing up red cedar, crimson yarn, natural water and the blood of a bird. Our discussion of the passage – which centered around how to bring someone who had been exiled from camp back into the community – led the group to consider how congregations could make a home for the isolated and mentally ill.
Rituals embed our values.
Last December I took part in a ritual called pyebaek (pronounced paybeck), one of a number of Korean marriage rituals. During the ritual, the bridal couple must make a series of full prostrations to parents and parents-in-law – no mean feat, as the couple are dressed in ornate and colorful dress. Both sets of parents offer the couple advice and gifts. Thereafter, the couple spreads out the apron held high by the bride throughout the ceremony. The parents engage in a classic fertility ritual, throwing chestnuts and dates in the direction of the apron. Those the couple catch will foretell the number of sons and daughters they will have.
I learned about pyebaek from my son, Erik, and his then fiancée, Serafina Ha. Since I knew both Erik and Serafina wanted children, I made the most predictable of jokes, and vowed to toss a bowlful of chestnuts and dates at them.
What happened, however, was not at all the lighthearted scene I’d imagined. Ralf and I kneeled on a straw mat before a low table. We were served a sweet liquor which we sipped from the same half of a gourd.
Then Erik and Serafina walked in. I was immediately aware that they were taking the ceremony very seriously. Each prostration was unified — performed almost like a dance. They knelt, bowed and rose with a solemnity I had not foreseen. Ralf and I spoke a few words each, and then I took two dates and two chestnuts from the bowl before me. Erik and Serafina spread out the apron.
Before the chestnuts and dates left my hands, all things stopped and were still. I was kneeling at a threshold, aware that my life as a parent was, if not ending, certainly transforming. In that moment, I felt that I was holding everything Ralf and I had tried to do as parents, how we had tried – for twenty-five years – to earn our son’s trust rather than assume it. Openness, loyalty, integrity, devotion – I imagined everything we’d done well arcing through the air towards them.
I tossed the dates and chestnuts. They caught them all.
It was a sacred moment, unexpected and wholly real. And it reminded me: the embedding of values in ritual is both ethereal and actual. It is, in fact, Levitical.
In three separate locations, Torah records the Israelites’ commitment to accept Torah. In each, they promise to do: na’aseh (Exodus 19:6, 24:3). The third time, the text tells us, they answer: na’aseh v’nishma – “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).
A midrash: “And they [the Children of Israel] said, ‘all that God has said we will do and we will hear,’ since they had initially prioritized doing. Moses said to them, ‘Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.’” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).
V’nishma. Literally: “we will hear.”
To listen well is to understand. To understand is to discern. To discern is to recognize what is right to do. We certainly are told this much: To do right is to hearken to Torah, to obey the true leanings of the heart. For what is our time here if not an effort to hear what our hearts can tell us, to discern what our hearts call for, to understand?
Listening, so Torah, entails a commitment to justice, certainly. In First Kings 3:11 we learn that King Solomon asked not for wealth or long life, but for havin lishmoa mishpat – discernment in dispensing judgment, understanding in order to discern what is right. Deuteronomy 1:16 tells us: Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between all – fellow Israelite or stranger.
Last Shabbat we read from Parshat Yitro, which begins with listening. V’yishma Yitro, it says. And Jethro heard. He listened to the story of all that YHVH had done. He must have imagined the jubilation on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.
Did Jethro also foresee the challenges a free people would face? Free, the people would face the fear of starvation and thirst in the wilderness. Free, they would contend with unexpected enemies, face their first battles for survival. Famished, exhausted, frightened, and free, they would be forced to contend with day-to-day difficulties. Disputes, tensions, concerns. Arguments, conflicts, disagreement.
He listens, and he acts. He takes Zipporah and his two grandsons and, upon arriving at the Israelites’ camp, he listens again. Then he tells Moses, shema b’koli, listen to my voice, my discernment, my understanding. He offers Moses good counsel: Seek capable persons who will serve unencumbered by greed. These may be your judges; these may help you establish righteousness and justice. He gives the gift of judgment so that judgment can be a gift.
We believe ourselves, in this country, to be a free people. But are we a listening one? Do we understand what Moses says in the midrash, that one cannot do right without understanding right, without hearing?
We have all heard stories in these past weeks.
The woman at my eye doctor’s office who helped me order my new lenses was gentle, friendly. Her name tag tells me she speaks Spanish. I am relearning Spanish, so we chat first. Then we talk. She tells me about herself. She tells me she is afraid. Why? Her best friend was brought to this country illegally as a child. She is a DREAMer. She thought she would be protected from deportation by applying for DACA status.
This past week, we learned, it is by no means clear that DACA recipients won’t be rounded up and deported despite the protection promised them.
Two days later my Muslim colleague at UNCC shows me pictures of her car, covered with graffiti. It is crude, ugly. Wiping it all off before her young children saw, she tells me, that was a gruesome task.
It will not be enough to hear these stories.
Listening must lead to understanding, to discerning, and to acting justly. Torah tells us that this is our very purpose during our time on earth. And we know what it means when a people hears and does not act. We know the cost of apathy, inaction, and indifference.
Learn by doing. But do by learning, by listening. And may we all – by listening, discerning, and understanding – do what we know is the right thing. To care for the world and for those who live in it. To protect the weak and the homeless and the stranger among us.
When I was a little girl – I’d say around four or so – I had this idea about where words came from. It seemed to me at the time that new words were coming my way almost every day. I was sure there was a big, beautiful building somewhere and that the building was filled with people who were busily inventing new words. I imagined them meeting and inventing. They would sit around a table, thinking up new and exciting words. Then, they would send them out into the land until they arrived in my neighborhood in a suburb outside of Chicago. I was sure there was a language company and its products would trickle down and out – for free.
I loved new words. I can still feel that little girl inside me, her eyes going wide with excitement: A new word, a new meaning, a new idea! She had a kind of happy delight in learning which grew, over the years, into an adult devotion to education.
When I went to college, I studied the things words are made of – stories and poetry. I became, first, a literature major. About halfway through my undergraduate years, I added a history major. I learned over the course of those four years that I loved words for the beauties they could create.
But increasingly, I was possessed by the ethics, the challenges inherent in making certain that words accurately described real human beings, real times and real events. It seemed to me that this task – discerning what I could be sure was real – was essential to creating a just society. Only when our words truly told us what was going on around us could we possibly do the work of reconciliation, understanding. Only then could we use our knowledge to make the world – truly – a better place. Studying history implied advocacy.
These days I find my eyes get opened very, very wide every day. That little girl inside me is expressing wonderment every morning when I read the news. She has even located the building where all the words are. The best words, in fact.
It’s nice, there. Gold curtains and busts and paintings and many people who are working very, very hard to create not just words and phrases, but whole histories.
She (and I) have learned new phrases. “Alternative facts” is our favorite. It seems we are not alone. The entire nation loves this phrase. “Post-truth” doesn’t seem as popular, but I like that one, too.
An amazing, daily outpouring of stories based on alternative facts are dizzying my adult mind. Three million people voted fraudulently in the last election! Refugees are dangerous! People got massacred in Kentucky and the press didn’t even notice!
I imagine all those people in that fine house huddling around the table working on these amazing stories, choosing those amazing words.
Of course, when I got to graduate school I learned that my equation of ethical historicizing and creating justice was too simple. After all, as Michael Foucault wrote, history is not an object. Discourse is. Discourse creates a set of rules for a given time period. Statements have a material reality: The rules of discourse are rules of power.
So the rules of our discourse have the capacity to destroy as well as to inspire. The rules we choose can save. They can also kill. That is exactly what will happen as long as that nice building and the people in it keep continue to churn out words, phrases, and stories as they have over the past weeks.
They have the best words for doing exactly that.
But guess what. I’ve learned words. So have you. Ours might be better. Let’s use them, and find out.
I was at the front desk, putting books on reserve for next semester’s classes and chatting with the librarians. I know these women pretty well. Usually, we share complaints about the new carpet, which, frankly, is halucious. Green. Looks like it belongs in a gambling establishment.
Today, we spoke about politics, about the future, about fear. All four of us remarked on the past year. We talked about the nights interrupted by inexplicable wakefulness, about a constant dance with anxiety.
“It’s like waking up to find you aren’t in the same country. But you are,” one librarian said.
Folks, there are objective reasons to be fearful – for our environment, for voter rights, for immigrants and minorities – the list is not a short one.
But we are not helpless. We cannot afford to sink into inaction, or to be dulled by our dread. I say there is an antidote. Psalm 100, folks. Let us make a joyful noise.
Here are some ways to do just that.
Write, call, write and call again: Recently, I have been signing a lot of petitions. But I am also using technology to message my representatives. This morning, I wrote not only to each and every Republican white guy who serves me in the House and Senate. I did not think that the plan by other Republican white guys to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics seemed like a good way to start draining swamps (this move seemed more like part of an ongoing effort to build one). Yes, I know that this was a House Republican move, but I wrote my U.S. senators anyway, too. I am writing almost every week about something, and I am not planning to stop. I am making noise. Joyfully.
Write to Mr. Trump, too! I have been visiting Mr. Trump’s website, where he includes a page for Americans to “tell their stories” and give him ideas about “how to make America great again.” I’ve written about my ideas for making America great again by, for example, providing access to citizenship for hardworking immigrants. I’m going to continue writing Mr. Trump. Joyfully. Want to join me? For your convenience, the URL is right here:
Give, give, and find another opportunity to give: Want to give a friend a present? How about denying capitalism its chance to inundate the world with more trash and, instead, giving a present that counts? Make a donation to the most awesome cause you think your friend supports. My family did this for the holidays, supporting organizations which provide free legal aid to the underserved, which are desperately trying to get relief to Syrian refugees, which help immigrants adjust to America, which work here in this country on progressive causes – well, you get the idea. It was fun and utterly joyful gift-giving.
Make a joyful noise – together! I am happily looking forward to becoming the program director at UNC-Charlotte for our combined Judaic-Muslim Studies Minor which will be launched this very spring. I can’t wait to bring the students in these fields together and to generate ideas for extra-curricular programming for each other and for our university community. We have a lot to share with one another. We have a lot we can do together. We can and will do this joyfully. You have yet to meet all the people you can sing with, pray with and join to good effect. Look around.
Lately, on my list serve, we’ve been writing about what we are grateful for as an antidote to our anxieties and fears. People, what if we were writing each day what we had done or plan to do to make a joyful noise?
We need each other’s joy. We need our own. We need to build and strengthen and support the good in this broken world.
Hari’u l’YHVH kol ha’aretz…ivdu et YHVH b’simcha.
This month, rabbinic pastor and chazzan Katyah Gohr flew to Chicago, bringing her tallit and her guitar. There she did exactly what our teachers had taught us to do. She was, simply, herself.
Authenticity can be revealed in all sorts of ways, of course, but it shows up most clearly when something altogether unexpected occurs in the course of a service. Something did go awry on Katyah’s watch as she officiated the marriage of my son, Erik Henning Thiede and my new daughter, Serafina Ha Kim.
And it was my fault.
The ceremony had been unfolding with tender and gentle surprises. There was the Rumi poem Erik had asked Katyah to read before he and Serafina drank from a shared Kiddush cup.
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
fall in Love,
and you will not be separated again.
There was Katyah’s soft singing of beloved phrases from Hosea in Hebrew:
I betroth you to me forever.
I betroth you to me with steadfast love and compassion.
I betroth you to me in faithfulness.
There were Erik and Serafina’s vows, so deeply felt that time itself seemed to pause during the reading. Recognizing the moment, Katyah first asked the two if they were fully willing to receive each other’s vows and then, in the very center of the ceremony, to kiss.It was a hatima, a seal. We all felt it; we witnessed the truth of love – sacred, peaceful, and whole.
Just a few minutes later, the rabbi mother (me) unintentionally managed to bring a sudden halt to the ceremony.
I was sitting very near the table where various accoutrements for the ceremony were located. I glanced over about and noticed the wine glass that Erik was to break. It was standing, covered by the napkin we had brought to wrap it in.
Imagining the horror of shards all over the floor where we planned to dance all night and supposing that the participants had simply forgotten to wrap the glass, I reached, as discretely as possible, to take the glass, wrap it up, and replace it on the table.
Erik saw my gesture. Katyah saw Erik’s look, and both uttered involuntary exclamations. “No,” Erik said, though he was smiling. “Don’t. It’s all right.”
Katyah walked out from under the chuppah. “Not yet!” she said, and gently took the glass, still covered by the napkin, and set it back on the table.
I was mortified (and confused). I tried to refocus.
Katyah, of course, already had. She sang the Priestly Blessing. She spoke about Miryam, of her dance, of her connection with mayyim chayyim, the waters of life. She read another Rumi poem Erik had selected.
The beauty of the heart
is the lasting beauty:
its lips give to drink
of the water of life.
Truly it is the water,
that which pours,
and the one who drinks.
All three become one when
your talisman is shattered.
That oneness you can’t know
Then she returned to the table, grinned at me, and with a gentle but perceptible flourish, she lifted the napkin off the glass, and presented the wine glass to Erik and Serafina. It was filled with water.
I laughed, my husband, Ralf, chuckled, and guests smiled. The couple drank, and Katyah brought the empty glass back to me with the napkin.
“Now,” she said. “Now you wrap it up.”
Carefully, tightly, I wrapped up the glass, and a few moments later Erik smashed it without the slightest shard escaping. Katyah picked up her guitar and played Siman Tov. We all stood up to celebrate the couple, the line dance started, and we danced with abandon.
I was Katyah’s roommate at nearly every retreat and workshop for all the years I was in the rabbinic program at ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I knew her good sense, her unassuming way of, simply, being herself when she led a service or sang a niggun. She has known Erik for well over a decade, since he was fourteen. They have sung together – even co-led services together. He knew what he was doing when he asked her to officiate his wedding.
I was not surprised by her authenticity, but by the outcome of it: moments no one will forget because they were both unique and real.
Thank you Katyah.
Yesterday, I received an email from the spouse of a Jewish person. Said individual is cheerfully colluding in creating a Jewish home.
“I was told gift-giving isn’t a practice done in Hanukah,” my correspondent wrote, “and that, in fact, I can avoid holiday gift-giving by claiming that my spouse is Jewish.”
Aha! I thought to myself. Judaism 101, a course which enrolls friends, lovers, partners, and spouses all over the world is in progress.
The email clearly reflected the author’s hope to avoid the mania of seasonal commercialism. I am sympathetic. I cease to go into any store of any kind immediately after Halloween. If I do, I know I will be inundated with good cheer. Good cheer and holiday music is capitalism’s sugar-coating for its systemic need to encourage materialism of all kinds. In excess-sius each day-o.
“Jews have lived in a largely Christian world for the last two millennia,” I wrote back. “We’ve also lived in Muslim worlds, Confucian ones, and so on. But most of us in the west have been swimming in the currents of Christianity.” I readily admitted that Hanukkah was not the “traditional” time for gift-giving. That honor, I said, fell to Purim.
I promised to explain the messy problem with the word “traditional” later. For many Jews, after all, the word “traditional” really means “what my parents did.” Sometimes it refers to “what the rabbi of my shul did when I was bar/t mitzvah age.” It can also mean “rabbinic” and is often used in this sense when the Jew in question wants to feel firmly grounded about whatever he or she is claiming is “traditional.”
(“Rabbinic,” of course, is a term with its own issues, as Jews frequently forget that is a category with time and geographical limitations. I can promise you, for example, that Jews of the first century C.E. certainly were not practicing a halakha promulgated by an elite that, at the time, had little to no authority in Jewish communities. But that’s another matter.)
“Jews,” I wrote, “have faced the onslaught of All Things Christmas for over a century. As Americans became more and more disposed to making Christmas the highlight of our capitalist and materialist culture, as they added sparkly lights and showy decorations and glittery Christmas trees, as reams of television shows and movies told adorable Christmas stories, some featuring an overweight and overwhite elderly dude who tossed presents into every home, as rabbits and elves and Nutcracker Suites proliferated, as Christmas music flowed into every ear from every possible locale, we poor Jews watched as our children increasingly felt their holiday to be out-performed by the robust glory that was America’s Christmas. American Jews had only one way (they thought) to fight back.”
Thus, I explained, Hanukkah began to resemble Christmas in, at the very least, the tradition of plentiful gift-giving. Jewish parents could even find a way to outdo their Christian neighbors. After all, Christmas is just one day. Hanukkah is eight! I know Jewish parents who give one present each night to their children. Oy.
One could (and maybe should) consider bringing back the idea that Purim was for gift-giving, which might also help to support the festival commandment of matanot la’evyonim, giving to the poor. Another perk of Purim? Encouraging American Jews to develop their cooking skills, given that a second festival commandment, mishloach manot, is to send gifts of food to friends and family. Americans could stand to use their kitchen appliances now and again.
Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev. The twenty-fifth word of the Torah is ohr (light).
The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” “consecration.” The root of the festival’s name, chet–nun–khaf, means “to learn, to make experienced.” The first two letters of Hanukkah, chet–nun, mean “grace.” Add a hey to that and you get “to rest.”
A Hanukkah candle takes about thirty minutes to burn.
May we abandon malls and stores and online purchasing locales for the opportunities those thirty minutes offer: true rest in the glow of a small and tender light, fragile and short-lived. May our Hanukkah candles remind us that life is precious.
May we, this year, give one another the best gifts of all: hope, understanding, and love.
And then we are brought right down to earth. Literally.
Last fall, I arrived to officiate a funeral at a relatively new cemetery in our town. It was small – barren, mostly of trees or landscaping, but featuring a sizable and rather muddy-looking pond at one side.
On the other side of the cemetery, across a busy local highway was a gas station and a storefront that had certainly seen brighter days.
Though I often do funerals for unaffiliated Jews, I had met the woman whose funeral I was officiating. She had been a witty, acerbic, and, in her way, absolutely charming presence at one of our Hanukkah parties. I knew the kind of culture that gave rise to her style of quips and comments, and I appreciated her intelligence and her sense of humor.
She attended my small community’s doings once or twice more; she was not “religious,” she told me, so we shouldn’t expect to see her. Still, nearly a decade later, it was not at all hard to remember her. Her sons told me the way she had become a second mother to their friends and distant cousins but remarked, repeatedly, on her sense of humor. I could certainly recall her loving and witty personality from my own brief encounters with her, so writing a hesped for a woman who had given so much and taken care of so many came easily.
The funeral itself was a rather different matter.
There were not too many attendees – perhaps about twenty. One came in flip-flops; another took her shoes off during the service.
The casket was a bright fire-engine red; I was given to understand that it had been ordered, then rejected, by another family.
All appeared to be going well, however, regardless of a casket shining like a fire truck in the sun, the sound of cars whizzing by, and an unusual lack of footwear.
I greeted the mourners. I read two psalms and a poem that seemed to capture the spirit of the woman we had come to honor. I was glad to see that the hesped managed to capture her bright and powerful personality. Both sons nodded at me; both had tears in their eyes as I spoke of their beloved mother.
It was time to chant El Malei Rachamim. I waited, composed my soul, and asked the Holy One help me convey simple and honest compassion.
About ten words in to the haunting, exquisite melody, I felt a sudden, sharp stinging on my left foot. Then my right. While singing, I looked down for a moment to see a crowd of ants congregating in little red minyans of their own, running into my shoes. I saw the telltale sign. There was a mound next to my left foot and the ants were swarming from its crushed mouth.
I went on singing. There was no way to try and brush the creatures off, no way to stop the proceedings, no way to do anything but ask the Holy One – with great and fully spontaneous intensity – for the strength to ignore the fiery pain in my extremities.
Fire ants are among the many insects I react to allergically.
Thank the Holy One. I finished the prayer, competed the service, allowed time for the mourners to say a last goodbye, all the while feeling the flaming pain and itching rise up my legs. Some of the ants had found my calves an attractive alternative venue for their impromptu meeting.
When I could, I made my way over to my husband, Ralf, and told him what had happened.
“With spiritual experience,” he said, “comes the agony of the feet.”
“He says sole-fully,” I rejoined.
Knowing that such things usually cause violent swelling and a long road of misery and sleepless nights, Ralf did his best to find ways to whisk me home.
But mourners also wanted to thank me, bless their hearts, and there was no gracious getaway.
Religious leaders have no idea what they are getting into when they feel that call to serve. You can’t dream up the things that will happen at life cycle events, in your communities, at the lecture you thought would go so smoothly.
My only advice: Be prepared to be brought back down to earth.