Blah Blah Blahg

A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Parshas Vayechi: Reveling in the Hope of What is Hidden

Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph by Rembrandt
This past Shabbos we read Parshas Vayechi, the final Torah portion in the book of Bereishis (Genesis). In this segment, we bid a final farewell to our forefather, Yaacov (English: Jacob), who from his deathbed, blesses each of his children, assigns them all a unique and personal mission and prepares to explain the events surrounding the future coming of the Messiah. It is explained, however, that when he proceeded to tell about the End of Days, "G-d removed his Ruach Hakodesh (gift of prophecy) precluding him from making that revelation (Bereishis 49:1)." The question arises, why was it necessary to take away Yaakov's gift of prophecy? One response from the Rebbe of Radomsk explains that it was not actually so that Yaakov's gift of prophecy was taken away by G-d, but that when he saw the tribulation and strife that his descendants would face, he became so pained that his ruach hakodesh actually departed from him. As such, we are now a generation that is experiencing the very tribulations that Yaakov foresaw. We live in an era of much darkness and at the same time, great light. The answer of when the Messiah will come is hidden to us; the answer of how we might bring forth Redemption is revealed.

Another point worth mentioning is that at the end of reading this parsha and the book of Bereishis, we all say in unison "Chazak! Chazak! V'Nis'chazeik!" "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!" Why do we say this at the end of this segment rather than at the commencement of our journey? This in and of itself highlights the importance of retaining momentum. We must complete our undertakings with the same level of zeal and enthusiasm with which we embark upon them. But how and where we direct this zeal and enthusiasm is crucial. Inherently, we exist in a world where much is hidden from our perception. We see only part of the whole picture. At times it can feel like standing too close to an Impressionistic painting--it's all a blur of texture and color but makes no sense to our human intellect, which craves a whole image. We feel disoriented and disconcerted. At other points, it can feel like we are standing at too broad a distance, too far to touch, feel or perceive anything real. We feel alienated and disconnected. In either stance, we can feel lonely, isolated and confused.

I can remember as a little girl the joy I would feel any time I brought a helium balloon home. Nothing was more exciting than watching it float in the air, gently grazing the ceiling. So full of life and shiny and red and real...and inevitably the day would end, I'd wake up the next morning and the balloon had fallen. I felt a sense of melancholy at the inevitable demise of each balloon but more than anything else, I desired to know exactly when that moment had occurred. How did it fall? Did it just feel tired and let go? Did it long to float just a little longer and give in to the night? Did it hurt or suffer? Did it go silently or with a song of dignity?

When I was a little bit older, I noticed one night at bedtime that a firefly was caught in a spider's web outside my bedroom window. Every few seconds it glowed with a light so intense and fierce that I imagined if I could just stay awake all night, I could preserve this perpetual bliss. I was old enough at this point, however, to know that by morning that light would be extinguished. At some point I gave in to the pull of childlike sleepiness and in the morning I woke up sobbing. The firefly might as well have never been there at all. Perhaps so taken under by the sadness of losing that small bit of light I even missed the boundless rays of sunshine peering through that very same window...

Cape Cod, May, 2000
As a teen, I visited a beach on Cape Cod. I remember sitting at the shore as the sun set. I squinted my eyes and strained my glance to try and perceive exactly where the ocean ended and the sky began. I watched that golden ball of daylight fall lower and lower, determined not to blink. I did not want to miss the moment at which the sun fell behind that line. But as nature has it and intends it, I blinked and the sun was already gone.

These are the pivotal moments of childhood. We attempt to adhere and apply life and meaning to everything around us. At once, we toss our caution to the wind living with a fearlessness and carefree demeanor that in seemingly only moments, we will lose and long to get back. As we grow, we learn to scoff at the silliness of thinking a balloon can feel or the pettiness of crying over the inevitable demise of a firefly. We learn that undoubtedly the sun will fall and at times, so will we. It seems better in the long-run to attempt to brace ourselves for that. But then we live in that constant state of waiting: an exhausting readiness to at once both wage war and surrender altogether. Red balloons start to shine a little less vibrantly. Fireflies seem a bit less mysterious. We turn to science and logic to place parameters around the beauty and richness of the salty beach air blowing in with the tide.

And suddenly, almost without warning, we are no longer children. Growing up, as it turns out, was not something that happens gradually or takes forever. It was as instantaneous and implausible as all of the balloons, fireflies and sunsets we'd ever known. And instead of seeing the limitless possibilities we once were sure accompanied a later bedtime and the right to cross the street alone, we only perceive the boundaries that suddenly box us in. No more are the possibilities endless; it's time to start crossing things off the list. I won't be a dinosaur or a firefighter or a ballerina. And as we grow bigger, our world grows seemingly smaller. We start to temper our boundless zeal with protective parameters of caution. We put up some mighty big guard rails, and we're now more careful about who and how and what we let inside...

Interestingly, even though this Torah portion highlights the death of Yaakov, it clearly states the following: "Vayechi Yaakov," meaning, "and Jacob lives." The beautiful message we can glean from this is that much in the way of the whens and how-longs of life are not revealed to us. Even the hows and whys are often disguised. We, being human, crave measurable boundaries and limiting categories. If we are to feel close and vulnerable with someone, we want to know for how long they will be with us and how exactly we can define that love. If we are to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, we want to know exactly where it will end. If we are to enjoy the childlike charm of a balloon or the mysterious light of a firefly, we want to know exactly how long it will last. And we can't. We shouldn't. We're not supposed to. To see our connections through the limiting lens of linear time would inhibit us from ever loving fully and selflessly. To be present in that moment that the sun fades behind the horizon, that the balloon falls, that the firefly's light is forever extinguished--would all be too painful to bear. We would never be able to cling to those moments with the same level of intensity and childlike lack of restraint. Instead, we are given a gift. Through living with death, like Yaakov, we will someday die with Life.The finite aspects of this world are hidden to us such that our infinite hope can be revealed.  And through that, albeit in a very limited and human way, we can experience the boundlessness and wholeness of a loving, compassionate and infinite Creator.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Prison & The Palace

"Life does not tell stories. People do.
Life provides no more than raw materials. Raw enough for us to look back and construct at least two versions of our own biography: one a prison, the other a palace.

This is the greatest kindness the Master of Life has given us: He has placed His own pen in our hands, so that we may enjoy the dignity of a palace constructed by our own design."

-From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.

I read the above words of wisdom here.

I cannot help but feel the awe and inspiration of this gift we all receive on a moment by moment basis. Our lives begin as the story others tell about us and little by little, we grow to own the story we tell about ourselves. Given these raw materials, we not only have the responsibility to build upon our foundation, we also enjoy the dignity of free will. We choose the prison or the palace, and we get to make this choice again and again--in each and every moment.

But what separates the prison from the palace? Given the very same raw materials to work with, why is my structure a prison and his a palace? Or why, in this moment, does my edifice feel like a palace but tomorrow it resembles a prison?

The Raw Materials are just that--raw. Some raw materials exist in a natural state of beauty, and require no further manipulation. Others arrive in an unattractive lump of coal which requires significant refinement before a diamond might emerge. Is the diamond any less real because we cannot yet see it? Of course not! But our eyes can only perceive its inherent beauty after it has undergone a unique transformation that requires time, pressure and heat. We, too, carry within us a distinct and inherent beauty. It is only completely revealed through self-refinement. This requires time, proper encouragement and the ever burning fire of our own inner longing.

We All Put Up Walls. We write our heartfelt prayers and somehow fit them in the cracks. Some of these walls are necessary. They keep us safe. They protect us. They keep the warmth and the light inside and they shield us from the outside elements. Some are unnecessary altogether. They keep life's fears and wounds inside. They keep love and healing at an insurmountable distance. These must be destroyed. Still others served a function at one time, but are no longer necessary or helpful to us. They inhibit us and stunt our growth, but their familiarity falsely gives way to feelings of security. We know full well the bounds and limits of existence on the inside; what we don't yet know is the extent of possibility that lies just beyond our line of vision.

Written prayers placed inside the Western Wall
We All Incur Some Structural Damage. As time goes on, our story evolves and walls decay. Where our edifice may have been a bit weak, sometimes things completely fall apart. We choose to rebuild, or move on, or sometimes to stop altogether and mourn that loss. Maybe we only need to patch up a few areas. Maybe we need to tear more down and locate the last spot that is strong enough to build from. In these areas of structural integrity, even the signs of age look charming, quaint, and beautiful. Sometimes they look like laugh lines. Other times they look more like tear stains or battle scars. In either scenario--and all the scenarios in between--these are the images that illustrate the story of our becoming. They tell of our accomplishments, our hopes, our dreams, our hurts and our joys. They are visions of where we came from, of who we already are, and who we strive to be. These are our Truths and no one else can build them or tear them down.

Our Age Gives Us Wisdom That Our Youth Tempers With Hope. And then there comes a time at which we realize that the monsters underneath the bed never really go away. The same monsters that kept us awake at night as frightened little girls and boys show up again and again even as we become adults. Suddenly, the obvious culprits--with their gargantuan hands and yellow teeth and spiky fur now look more and more like the girl next door or the guy across the street. They are cunning and deceiving in their familiarity, they catch us unawares. And sometimes, frighteningly, they look a whole lot like our very own reflection! What do we do? Where do we turn? How does the story continue?

We Take the Pen In Our Own Hands and Simultaneously Loosen Our Grip. We do hold the pen and there is inherent dignity and responsibility in being our own autobiographer.  But in reality, telling and retelling that story all alone--that is how prisons are made. The palace emerges out of the thick of the fog when we come to realize, understand, and trust that our story is best experienced when shared. We were not meant to build a city of solitude; we were meant to create a vibrant and flourishing community. What looks like coal to one person is clearly a diamond to another; inherently we depend on each other's vision to view the picture as a whole. And together we create this tapestry that is woven out of threads in every color--shades of love, shades of loss, shades of joy, and shades of sadness. There are shades of success, and failure, of hope and regret, memories and dreams. At once they both color our past and give light to our future. This truly is the greatest kindness of our loving Creator!

My heartfelt prayer for us all today--myself included--is that we can tap into the genuine gratitude we feel for this gift of 'raw materials' we receive in each and every moment. May we all courageously take the pen in one hand and the hammer in the other as the authors of our story and the carpenters of this world we collectively call our home. May we cultivate the kindness, compassion, and patience to build upon our unique and glorious foundations. May we also have the wisdom and clarity to know when it's time to burn down that final wall and overcome. And lastly, may we all merit to see and to articulate our story in the image of a palace where we shared the Truest parts of ourselves with loving others--and not a prison in which we suffer alone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Only Simchas! Lessons Learned from my Seventh 4th Birthday

 Many of life's most important lessons have come to me from the preschool classroom---either during my own preschool years or now as a teacher. My class had a sweet little celebration for me today in honor of my birthday. When asked how old they thought I was by another teacher, the most common responses I got were "maybe three or four." There were a few other guesses, like "16" and "11" and "25" and then one "29," but we won't talk about that one
At 28 (shh, don't tell them!!!) there are certain things I've learned having been four-years-old seven times now...

I'm still young enough to think that two "Ps" are hilarious when placed adjacently...
I'm old enough to light candles all by myself...
I'm too old to light said candles and not set off the smoke alarms in my apartment!
All beverages, including alcoholic ones, taste best in a birthday cup daintily sipped through a silly straw.
Waiting until the day of your birthday in 2012 to open your presents Totally makes up for that stunt you pulled in December of 1993!

When others try to guess your age, NEVER let the answer offend you. If they low-ball it, it's your striking good looks. If they aim a bit high, it's your overwhelming maturity and intelligence!

But with age and experience come wisdom--the inherently beautiful ability to know that we must not take our time here for granted or waste a single moment. And therefore...
Don't futz around, eat dessert first!!!

But now on a more serious note...

I found myself reflecting this morning on what I expected life to be like by the time I reached this age. I must be honest; for a moment, I felt a pang of sadness, disappointment even. In my earlier twenties (28 is still early twenties, FYI--Late Twenties begins at 30 and continues indefinitely...) I concocted an idea of what I thought this age would look like and it looks different than that image. The details don't matter because everything is from G-d and everything is for the good, and that is exactly the point that encouraged me to realize how truly blessed I am. 

In reality, I am right. At 28-years-young today, my life is NOTHING like how I thought it would be and I am eternally grateful to G-d, to my supportive family and friends, to a vigilant medical team and  to the many mentors, inspirations, personal heroes and even complete strangers who've walked this path alongside me and with me. In reality, there was a time I was not expected to graduate high school, let alone obtain a college education. There was a time I was told I would never live, work, or exist functionally in society. There was a time I was told I would spend the rest of my life swallowing a cocktail of medications just to maintain a life free of pain and minimal control over my body. And, sadly, there was a time I believed that. 

But thank G-d, there also came a time at which I questioned it. There also came a time at which I longed for more. I opened my lips to speak and finally--in only my own words, and not anyone else's--the most genuine Truths came forth. From the time I was a very young child, it came in the form of music and song; this still accompanies me today. It came later in the form of prayer and faith in a G-d who could be and is in control when I could no longer support that burden. That trust and that closeness is the light which illuminates my path as a now observant Jew. No more would I place my trust in man alone for we are human and inherently imperfect. No more would "experts in their field" determine my future or define my past.

One can contemplate the verse found in Devarim (Deutoronomy) 30:15: "Look! I have placed before you life and goodness as well as death and evil...and you shall choose life!" It is beautiful, simple, and at the same time gloriously complex. For it's not a choice we make just once. We don't just 'see the Light' and continue gracefully forward. It's a much longer tunnel than that! There is most definitely a Light, and with G-d's help, the tunnel will be very long (ad 120!), but life and goodness are things we choose and create in each and every moment.

Faith is the momentum that keeps me going. Torah is the light by which I see the way. Twenty-eight is not at all what I expected. It's not at all what I planned. Thankfully, G-d has a sense of humor. I planned; He laughed. I walk a path of health, success, and answered prayers that is at once humbling, moving and well more than I deserve. I also walk a path of trust that He is with me and I have nothing to doubt or fear. G-d only knows what my life will look like one year from today and I am actually quite alright with that! I pray for the strength, health, and courage to pursue my rightful path with kindness, love and patience. And I pray for the clarity to see it realistically as it truly is: only simchas!

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Open Letter to Adam Lanza & My Call to Action for Educators of All Kinds

Adam Lanza,

My instinct after the horrific and selfish acts of violence you committed on Friday was to respond in anger. I wanted to write words of disgust, wrath and vitriol. But my anger was fleeting. As soon as it arose, it dissipated, leaving behind only my deep sadness. And the truth is, you don't deserve my words at all. Neither of rage nor sorrow; you do not deserve the attention, the effort or the thought. Because of that, I wish to clarify that this isn't really a letter to you or even really about you. It is a plea for kindness, for peace, for compassion.  It is a cry from the soul of every warm blooded human being--not just other teachers like myself--but educators and helpers of all kinds. This letter is for any person who at any time has an opportunity to make a child feel safe, secure and worthy; in that sense, this letter is for everyone

But as for you, Adam Lanza--I tried to imagine some big, bad, scary creature I could deem capable of such evil and I just now saw your picture. You'd barely escaped the baby-fat of boyhood! Your eyes had this deer-in-the-headlights look of frenzy--as though life itself somehow caught you by surprise. And suddenly, faced with your childlike demeanor, I imagined you at four years old. Spilling your milk, skinning your knees, climbing the monkey bars--doing all of the things that my four year old students do each and every day. I tried to imagine what has to go so horribly wrong for all of that to turn into what you became. Maybe you spilled one glass of milk too many? Or when you skinned your knee, no one was there to kiss your boo-boo better? Perhaps there was no celebration when you finally made it across the monkey bars to the other side? The fact of the matter is, it's too hard for me to imagine any little boy or girl growing up and becoming you. And it is both impossible and overwhelming to try to measure the vast depth of human suffering.

My job and my passion as an early childhood educator is to instill and impart a sense of personal security and self-worth on each and every student. Seemingly not that long ago, the most frightening aspect of childhood was the potential for your fresh scoop of ice cream to fall off the cone and into the grass. Perhaps that is a naive belief; perhaps there has always been and always will be darkness and evil out there. But on the same token, the feeling is unmistakable. Something was lost. Call it innocence or sweetness or whatever you want, but the world is different when four year old children talk about "the bad man who came into a school and shot the children dead." The world is different when police officers and maintenance men patrol my preschool building to adhere chain locks to our classroom doors and bolts to our windows. The world is different when instead of planning for ice cream parties and birthdays, we plan for emergency evacuations and where to hide inside the classrooms if, G-d forbid, such an act should occur here.

And, the world is the same. Because today, like every day, I learned with my students. I laughed with them. I played with them. I sang and talked with them. When milk was spilled, I grabbed a paper towel and with a soft tap to the shoulder, I reiterated, "It's ok, it happens." When owies occurred and tears were shed, I gave a hug and a band-aid and a gentle reminder that "It's ok to cry and feel scared. I'm here now, you'll be alright." In moments of success, I smiled, gave a high five and words of praise. Today, like every day, I encouraged my students to ask for help and to be helpers. I truly believe at the core of every child--and every adult for that matter--is the desire to feel loved, known, and understood. 

I could choose to dwell in the sadness and anger of innocence lost. I could choose to live in fear of and frustration over the realization that even inside my school, I cannot necessarily keep these children safe. Or I can take a cue from the children, for they are the true teachers! For them, only kindness matters. Toys, games, friends and even feuds are all temporary and fleeting. What is BIG and IMPORTANT in this moment might not matter so much in five minutes and might not matter at all in ten.  What will matter is who was there to play, learn, talk, and sing with. Who was there to help clean a spill or wipe up tears or celebrate milestones? 

I often ask other adults to think about the important grown-ups in their own childhood. Who were the special people who loved you into being who are you today? If we are lucky, we can name one; if we are truly blessed we can name many! Often their actions were not necessarily grandiose nor their words so magnificent. Often, these special people were simply the parents, relatives, caregivers, teachers, community members, or other individuals who took the time, effort, and sensitivity to remind us we were loved, known and understood. They made us feel safe, they made us feel secure. They taught us we are worthy and capable and good. 

For that reason specifically, this truly is more than a letter to a face behind an act of evil. It is a call to action and service. Whether or not education is your profession, we all have the potential and responsibility to be educators in a variety of realms. We have enough "education" out there about hatred and violence. I call upon myself and my fellow teachers (of all types!) to offer education on kindness and compassion. We teach as much with our actions as we do with our words. If we turn inward in despair, evil and darkness has won. Rather, let us reach out and spread the light of kindness. I encourage all who are able, to thank the special people who's acts of compassion--no matter how big or small--shaped you into the person you've become. And I encourage all of us to smile more, practice more patience, and exude more sensitivity. You never know when your seemingly minute act of kindness could be just the leverage necessary to pull its recipient from the depths of despair to the safe-haven of hope.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Final Chanukah Post: Only Light Can Do It

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the following:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

The terrible news we heard of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut arrived on the east coast shortly before Shabbat was to begin. On Shabbos Chanukah you must light your menorah before sunset and this time of year that happens early in New York! Suddenly faced with such painful news, many asked, how can we light the Chanukah and Shabbos candles in joy when so many others are in pain? When, whether close or far, we are in pain? The Hebrew phrase b'simchah refers loosely to the idea of acting in joy. We are supposed to go into Shabbos b'simchah, to remember the miracles of Chanukah b'simchah, to fulfill all of G-d's commandments b'simchah. Many of us struggled as the sun went down on Friday night to act, let alone feel joyful.

In a remarkably appropriate time, I recently received as a gift a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' To Heal a Fractured World. After I moved somewhat numbly through the motions of preparing a few last things  for Shabbat, lighting my menorah, then lighting the Shabbos candles and praying, I sat down on Friday night with the book I'd waited (impatiently) to open all week. R' Sacks begins his brilliant work by talking about the ethics of responsibility. And in an impeccably worded statement in his opening chapter he explains:

"There is a Hebrew word, a key term of the Bible, for which there is no precise English translation: simchah, usually translated as 'joy.' What it really means is the happiness we share, or better still, the happiness we make by sharing."

In that moment, it occurred to me that every mitzvah I've taken on is a means to connect and share. To connect and share with G-d and with my own G-dliness. To connect and share with my ancestors and roots. To connect and share with my past inasmuch as I do with my future. It is imperative to connect and share with my fellow Jew and also my fellow man on a broader, more holistic spectrum. That is not just the basis of why I keep Shabbos and do so b'simchah, but it is the basis of how I live my daily life. For inherent in our ability to share in human pain as, in our own way, we all did on Friday afternoon is also our unique ability to share in human joy. That is the beauty of the human race and that is my responsibility not just as a Jew, but as a person.

I thought this evening, as Shabbos ended and as I lit my menorah for the final time this year of Dr. King's words. It's time to let a little light into this room--and then a little more. And it's time to let a lot of that light out of this room and into the world at large--a fractured world that glistens in radiant beauty like shards of glass. A world that already has enough pain, enough hurt, enough darkness. All it really needs is a little light and a whole lot of love. I also reflected on the natural sense of wistfulness that accompanies the final night of Chanukah when, almost paradoxically, the menorah lights shine at their brightest. Today, the fight is no longer a physical battle against a ruthless other, but a silent war we wage within ourselves. It is the inner voice that too frequently tells us we are not strong enough, not pure enough, not many or mighty or righteous enough. The battle is lost when we begin to believe that voice that speaks too loudly, too harshly, too hastily. The war is won when we come not only to feel, but also to reveal and BE a light unto this darkness. We are surrounded by miracles every day. We are not just here to experience and take in the light--we are here to emanate it from within and outshine the darkness. Only then can we and can this very broken world begin to heal.

Chanukah 5773

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shabbos Schmooze: Illumination

I read the most beautiful pearl of wisdom this morning based on the writings and words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

"In truth, there is no need to change the world, but only to illuminate it. For each thing has a place, and in that place it is good.
There is only one problem: It is dark. In the dark, there is no way to find the place for each thing. No way to know what belongs in your closet, ready for use, and what belongs in the laundry, waiting to be cleaned. And so, that which could be washed and used for good is despised as hateful, and that which is wholly good is used for evil.
Torah is light: it tells us the place of each thing. Shine it bright, and heal the world."

As Thursdays go, this was, as usual, a busy one! I powered through the workday, ran some errands on my way home to pick up a few items for Shabbos and rushed back. I slowed down to light my Chanukah menorah and ponder how truly grateful I am for  G-d's many miracles even (and especially) in this time of darkness. I caught up on calls and correspondence and picked up the pace to prepare my home so I can return after another workday tomorrow and enter the Holy Shabbos b'simcha (i.e. with joy, specifically in relation to serving G-d). One thought kept returning to the forefront of my mind tonight, the 6th night of Chanukah--as much in the moments of slow contemplation as in hours of hustle and bustle: 

Sure, when it's Chanukah, it's easy to feel and express the light of Yiddishkeit (i.e. Jewishness). Of course, on the Holy Shabbos, it comes naturally! But what of the hours of the week we are lost in the monotony of the mundane? What of the moments between the hours that we are immersed in the physicality of this material world? And it came to me that the real journey toward illumination begins when we can maintain and express the light of Torah in any environment at any time, regardless of where we are or whom we are with.

When we feel holy, we act holy. When we feel on fire, we shed the light and spread the warmth. At times, for better or for worse, the feeling isn't there or we just can't tap into it. We get caught up in the  human fear and angst of what that might imply and we forget, we are no different on Tuesday than we are on Saturday. We are the same on the streets of the city as we are in the solace of the woods. We are as complete and whole on a public bus as we are in the sanctuary of the synagogue. We are holy through and through because this is how Hashem made us! We are always capable of feeling, seeing, and spreading the light because this is our Divine mission. So as we savor the remaining nights of we briefly get a glimpse of a world with more light than darkness...and especially as we light the Shabbos candles tomorrow evening, let us remember and take comfort in the light within and around us all. This G-dly light is what illuminates our darkest hour and that is what will truly heal this world.

A Freylechen Chanukah and Gut Shabbos!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chanukah Night IV: Finding Meaning at the Midpoint

Tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah. The midpoint. As a little girl, on this night my excitement suddenly became tempered by the wistful awareness that the holiday was halfway over. As an adult, I see it in a new light; a light tailored by a couple more decades of life experience and candles that naturally burned out long after I'd left the room. The fourth night is not inherently a time of greater sadness or necessarily even greater joy for me. It is a time, however, of palpable--even visual anticipation. I almost experience a sense of urgency. It is a sense of standing on the threshold of something both long awaited and barely known. Tonight as I dwell comfortably in the quietude of my apartment--a silence only occasionally broken by the soft sizzle of the hot oil tickling the flames in my menorah, I am both comforted and inspired by the meaning one can glean from The Midpoint.

Four candles lit, four left to go. Come nightfall tomorrow, we will have surpassed this unique intersection at which there are (not including the shamash) equal parts of both light and darkness--equal potential, in a sense, to go either way. For me, it highlights a very human characteristic. How often in life do we meet this intersection? How often do we come to that proverbial fork in the road?

Faced with The Midpoint, we are like the Chanukah candles in that we have a G-dly ability to spread light on our path. We are, however, unlike the Chanukah candles in that we also have the human quality of free choice. A candle has only the will to burn when lit. As humans, we are all Divinely lit and yet, we live in a world of such darkness, sometimes this light does not seem to be enough to guide our footsteps. Perhaps we become afraid and we make a decision in haste. Perhaps we ponder the decision so cautiously that, G-d forbid, we become complacent. At times we stumble and even fall. The light that is yet to be revealed can be as blinding as the darkness itself.

There is, however, another unique difference between human light and candlelight. A candle, once it burns, has nothing left. Its flame, its heat, its light and life are all gone. Its body is no more and it is as if it never existed at all. Like the candle, our bodies are a vessel that face the test of time. Unlike the candle, however, we enter and exit this physical world with all of our light and potential intact. Even as the vessel ages and weathers, the light within it only grows stronger and more complete. Time eliminates the barriers of filters and dilution. We are in a perpetual state of becoming in which time can only complete us, not destroy us.

Perhaps if we truly knew and felt how full of light we are, it would be impossible to contain it. We would glow unfiltered, uninhibited, and untainted. Maybe there already are moments in which we experience that to the truest degree possible: moments of pure and unadulterated bliss. In these moments it doesn't matter if the glass was half full or half empty because the vessel is overflowing! Unfortunately, we often see these moments as part of the journey when, in reality, they are the journey. We aren't merely here in this darkness trying to get to the light; we are the light!

So tonight, on the fourth night of Chanukah, may we all glean inspiration and comfort from the pending reality that tomorrow, the amount of light will officially outweigh the amount of darkness. At the Midpoint, the energy of anticipation wells up inside. Imagine for a moment how life might be different if we could see with the same certainty with which we see that another candle will stand tall and aglow tomorrow that, so, too will we stand tall and aglow tomorrow. That fail is just another 4-letter-F-word. That there's no need to quantify whether the glass is half full or half empty because it's OK for it to spill over! It's OK to live abundantly and wholeheartedly and to throw caution to the wind--even if just for a moment. And whether we choose in that moment to turn left, turn right, or turn back around altogether--home is wherever we make it and the light is always on.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Caution: Oil Spill Ahead--A Potentially Controversial Post for the First Night of Chanukah

I am by nature (and sometimes to my own detriment) a peacekeeper and peacemaker. I have used this blog up until now for purely personal purposes and softened my words around anything that I perceived could spark controversy or confrontation. So, when I was asked by someone to write a response post to the common and controversial issue of expressing holiday greetings this time of year, I balked at the idea. There are not too many topics which get me utterly fired up, but year after year--especially with the advent of social networking and similar modern innovations--I feel increasingly on edge. Since tonight is the first night of Chanukah as well as my Jewish birthday, I feel it is appropriate now to step out of my comfort zone, to cut through the caution tape, and to tackle the proverbial beast...

It's impossible given the time and mood of the season to escape it: the inevitable, albeit well-intended and heartfelt greeting of "merry Christmas." Also inevitable is my own response of, "Thank you, and happy holidays to you, too." Sometimes the conversation is over. Other times, it's just begun. Do not get me wrong, I think open dialogue is both useful and vital. However, I wish to clarify a few things purely from my point of view.

  • I do not feel a casual wish of "happy holidays" takes away from my joy in celebrating Chanukah or anyone else's joy in celebrating the holidays of their given or chosen faith. If I know you celebrate a certain holiday, I am pleased to greet you accordingly. If you know I celebrate Chanukah, please feel free to greet me accordingly! 

  • I respect the unique traditions behind the holidays that others may observe and I cherish the unique traditions around the holidays that I observe. There is a colorfully vast realm of diversity painting the canvas of this season! 

  • Chanukah is NOT Jewish Christmas. Chanukah is it's own unique holiday that happens to fall around the same time as a few other unique holidays, including Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, the secular new year and more.

  • Being that there are so many celebrations in this season and many meanings behind them, wishing someone "happy holidays" is not just a way to be politically correct or culturally sensitive, it is a way to encompass the many occasions for celebration this time of year.
That said, now let's talk about cultural sensitivity: 

I do not wish to be insensitive to anyone's feelings, beliefs, or opinions. Know that I speak here only for myself and not for anyone else, particularly not on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole. My journey has landed me in some amazing locations alongside some amazing people who challenge and inspire me. I pray today, and every day, that my journey continue to bring people across my path who will inspire and challenge me in this way! I have had conversations with individuals, groups, and panels who strive to cultivate an interfaith dialogue through the lens of kindness and compassion. I have also been privy to conversations that were not as kind or compassionate. The question that often comes up and rarely gets resolved is this: 

"If it bothers you so much to be wished a merry christmas rather than happy Chanukah, why not just wish everyone a happy Chanukah and call it good?"

And here, in a hopefully well-articulated nutshell is my answer:

The Chanukah story is unique. It is not different in that oppression of the Jewish people is at all uncommon, but rather that unlike many other instances of persecution in Biblical times--or even afterward, the Greeks did not primarily seek to eliminate the Jewish people. Rather, they sought to assimilate the Jews. They did not necessarily have an issue with the Torah or with mitzvos, particularly if they were inherently logical or meaningful. They did, however, have a huge problem with the aspect of fulfilling mitzvos that was supra-rational. They could not accept the idea that the Jewish people did such things for the purpose of infusing the world with holiness rather than the purpose of infusing the world with logic. So rather than seeking to kill the Jewish people, they sought to make us just like them. However, for the Jewish people, assimilation is death to the soul. And spiritual death is equivalent to if not worse than physical death. The violent war emerged only after the Jewish people's refusal to assimilate; through the victory and strength of a few, the miracles of Chanukah emerged and are, to this day, remembered and celebrated. 

Today, sadly, is not much different from the times of the Greeks. In our extended exile, the Jewish people are frighteningly closer to assimilation than ever. At the same time, however, the threat is no longer the proverbial Greek army--it is an internal threat significantly closer to home, our own selves. For as much as I or others like me wish to be peacekeepers and peacemakers--often to our own detriment--we are by our G-dly nature meant to rise above that much in the way that oil rises above water. While many other faiths proselytize and encourage conversion, Judaism has been and remains insular. Conversion is permissible and welcome in specific circumstance, but it is not outwardly encouraged or sought after.

And so, it is as simple as this: being wished a 'merry Christmas' does not offend me if the greeter does not know I'm Jewish. It's a pleasantry and well intended. Being asked, encouraged, or forcefully told to only express that greeting to others at this time of year does not sit well with me. Additionally, this is not and cannot be one of those reciprocal two way exchanges. Me wishing one and all a happy Chanukah does not solve the issue. This is the very essence of what Chanukah signifies and recalls--an essence which is still frighteningly ablaze in modern times. It may not be logical, it may be supra-rational altogether. That oil-to-water quality is the same unique quality that preserved the Jewish people in the time of the Greeks, and also in the story of Purim, as well as in the story of Pesach... It preserved the Jewish people during the Inquisition and the crusades. It preserved the Jewish people during the Holocaust. It preserved the Jewish people during the wars in Israel. And right now, across the world-- from every menorah-lit window, this quality preserves the Jewish people today. 

I wish everyone--regardless of faith, creed, location, or destination--a meaningful season. May we all find the strength and courage to rise above that which is ostensibly easy, natural, or logical for the important purpose of education and advocacy. May we also cultivate the kindness and compassion to infuse this darkness with a little light. And lastly, to my Jewish family and friends, Chanukah Sameach!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Releasing Joy One Light at a Time

The date on the Jewish calendar corresponding to my birthday is the 25th of Kislev, which also happens to be the first day of Chanukah. My 28th birthday and the beginning of Chanukah is exactly a week away, starting at sundown after next Shabbos. On that night, Jewish people near, far, and in every corner of the earth--people who identify as religious, secular and varying degrees of in between-- will light the first candle on their Chanukah Menorah. It is truly a beautiful vision in my mind to imagine this little bit of light illuminating such a vast and widespread darkness. In a time in which we are so far from--and yet so close to redemption, the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah is one that spans age, generation, level of observance, gender, socio-economic status, education, geographic location, you name it! It is a mitzvah that spans the very boundaries of time itself. In the instant that those candles begin to brightly burn, we say the same brachos that have been said for thousands upon thousands of years.

I've spent some time over the past weeks in study and reflection on the idea of Chanukah particularly in relation to my birth-date. One characteristic of Chanukah that has always fascinated me is this idea of light in darkness. Even in the darkest room, the flame of one tiny candle is totally unmistakable. It doesn't take away the darkness, it merely adds some light. However, in a true and total state of darkness--that one little light is completely invaluable. On the first night of Chanukah, the world is very much like that darkened room; we are surrounded by pitch black and this vast abyss we cannot even begin to decipher. We light only one candle, and together with the shamash, two flames rise in their humble flickering dance.

That room is still enveloped by darkness and yet, all of a sudden--through only the tiniest amount of light--we can begin to see. Over there is a door. And two windows. There's a bookshelf against the wall. There are pictures on that mantle. There's the sofa, and the table and two chairs. Now, all of a sudden, we recognize this room--this is our home. So, too, can the Chanukah candles illuminate the darkness masking that which might be familiar in ourselves.

Born into a world of darkness, it is ostensibly impossible that we make it through unscathed. We all carry the wounds and scars of battles past. In some areas, a new, thicker skin has developed. In others, a tenderness and vulnerability remains. Within us all is this flame that burns so very hot but sometimes burns quite low. We can get so immersed in the darkness--so hung up on what we cannot see--that we all but lose sight of the other ways in which we are able to perceive the world around us. We can forget that in this darkest hour when our eyes fail, our other senses heighten. We do not need to see where we are going, we only need to touch it, to hear it, to recognize the smell and taste and feeling of home--whatever and wherever that is for you. And then, out of desperation, or longing, or trust, or desire--or maybe all of the above--then we see that light.

At first it is a humble dancing flame in a room still engulfed in darkness. Then it becomes a song that pours from within our soul. Soon, we can smell the sweetness that is undoubtedly to follow--we are on the cusp of something so very big. And before we know it, we can even taste it on our lips that seemingly out of nowhere now call out a Name we thought we'd long forgotten. It is in that moment of self-recognition and G-d recognition that, at last, we are home. We carry the wounds and scars with pride and perseverance; we come to understand that we weren't put here to light up the world in one fell swoop--we were put here to light up one space, one room, one heart at a time.

And so, with renewed energy and a burning, unshakable faith, I hereby release the joy and light that for so long I held inside me. I smile--first with my eyes, then my mouth and before I know it, my soul is laughing. I light up this room, then the building, and then I move on to the neighborhood. The world is my playground and I am only 28 years young! There is something truly unique about being born on what is declared a Day of Joy. For many, it is natural to notice the darkness; for me it is impossible not to see the light. For this and the many other blessings G-d has bestowed upon me, I am truly and eternally grateful!

 "The lights of the Menorah have the power to heal our eyes, and to rectify and undo the damage of any negative sight or vision." --Rabbi Dovber Pinson, Eight Lights: 8 Meditations for Chanukah, page 24