Channukah: Anti-Colonialism vs. Assimilation

Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, so that from ca. 400 BCE going forward, Greek culture and worship influenced Hebrews living in Israel. The affluent Hebrews were willig to accept Greek culture and assimilate. The lower classes/peasants were not. Maybe the poor resist change easily because they have less to lose and/or to gain – ? In any case, the Hebraic conflict with Hellenism was thus both anti-colonial and anti-assimilation.

Cast of Characters

The Pharisees’ approach to what would become Judaism began roughly 200-150 BCE. They were the forerunners of today’s rabbis. Their focus on ritual purity, prayer, biblical study, and legal scholarship tended to separate them from the illiterate masses. Like today’s academics, they didn’t have great economic status or power. Their influence was democratizing in the sense that the people didn’t need the priests to talk to God; they could do it themselves directly.

The Sadducees were the priests and aristocrats, the wealthy elites who dominated Temple worship. They were members of the Sanhedrin (the court of the Second Temple period) and outnumbered the Pharisees.

The Pietists, a hardcore group of Hebrews willing to die as religious martyrs, wanted to end pagan worship. They supported the actions of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans were a tribe of priests that included the Maccabees.

Prologue

Under the rule of Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Hebraic observance was banned ca. 167 BCE. The Hebrews were not allowed to keep the laws of kashrut, to observe the sabbath, or to circumcise their sons. The Temple was annexed and used to worship Greek and Roman gods. Zeus ended up on the altar. Hebrews who resisted these changes were tortured and murdered. Antiochus may have been assisted by a priest named Menelaus (the successor of Jason, who’d established two Greek educational institutions and named a Greek city in Jerusalem “Antioch at Jerusalem.”) Menelaus supported Hellenization. Some of the Hebrews were sympathetic to Greek culture, wanted assimilation, and helped it along. A priest called Mattathias of the Hasmoneans, and his five sons (the Maccabees, aka “hammers”) organized a rebellion against the Syrian army. They also targeted Hellenized Hebrews, of whom they did not approve.

The Guerilla War

As the legend goes, the Syrian/Green army demands that the Hebrews sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. Mattathias kills a Hebrew who complies. He then calls for others to stand with him for God’s Law and the Covenant. This launches a guerilla war, which according to various sources may have lasted between three and twenty-five years along the coastal area which is now Tel Aviv. The Maccabees retake Jerusalem and reclaim the Temple. They purify it and rededicate it. They rebuild the altar with new stones.

Epilogue

The story of the Maccabees was preserved by Hellenized Jews and rejected by the Pharisees. The Hasmoneans were not really anti-Greek, as they didn’t uphold the goals of the Pietists once they gained power. Around 37 BCE, Pompeii annexed Judea under the authority of Rome, which put an end to Hasmonean rule and led to Herod’s installation as ruler of the Hebrews by the Romans. Some say the Hasmonean leader allowed the Romans to gain control of Judea, due to having asked for their political protection. Active prosyletizing by the Hasmoneans ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

After the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees became the carriers of tradition in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud. They considered themselves to be the direct inheritors of the teachings of Moses. Before the destruction of the Second Temple, nobody was called “Rabbi” (which comes from the Aramaic word for “my master”) – including Hillel and Shammai. Early leaders included Rabbi Gamliel, who taught the apostle Paul (aka Saul); Rabbi Yochanan ben Kakkai, the founder of the academy at Yavneh; and Rabbi Akiva, a significant contributor to the Mishnah.

Interestingly, Channukah is not mentioned at all in the Mishnah, but only in the Gemara. There the rabbis discuss the rules for lighting sabbath candles. One asks if the same rules apply to Channukah candles. Another asks what Channukah is. They say the lamentation for the dead and the fasting that occur on the 25th of Kislev are prohibited because the Greeks defiled the Temple and the oils in it. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. The vessel contained only enough oil for one day’s lighting, but a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. The next year they commemorated that event as a festival of thanksgiving for their victory. That’s about all it says about Channukah in the Gemara.

The Rabbis didn’t like the Maccabees, as the Maccabees made themselves and their children kings (the Hasmonean Dynasty.) Priests and kings were supposed to come from separate tribes. As previously mentioned, the Hasmoneans allowed the Romans to provide them with protection, and thus handed them the power to take over the kingdom entirely. The Hasmoneans sided with the Sadducees instead of the Pharisees. Trying to run a nation under Judaic principles, such as love, fairness, and forgiveness, tends not to work out so well.

What’s the Festival of Lights About?

Because the Rabbis were not big fans of the meaning or outcome of the Maccabean revolt, they focused their attention on the light. They said it symbolized God’s help, and the infinite. God created the world in seven days. The eighth day represents infinity. The celebration coincides with the solstice. Just as the birth of Jesus supplanted pagan solstice practices, so did Channukah for the Jews. Channukah is actually a late Sukkot (fall harvest/pilgrimage.) The First and Second Temples had been dedicated at Sukkot. The sons of Mattathias, led by Judah ha Maccabee, go to light the Eternal Flame in the Temple, but discover that only one vessel of purified oil remains. Miraculously, the oil continues to burn for 8 days, giving them the time they need to prepare additional oil. They must ritually purify themselves after battle before they can make new oil. War requires soldiers to be in the presence of the dead. To be with a dead body makes one ritually impure.

This year we light our first candle on Wednesday at nightfall. A menorah is a candelabra of any type, while the term channukiah specifies the 9-candle holder used during Channukah. Candles are placed from right to left, as we read in Hebrew, but lit from left to right. Hillel and Shammai debated whether light should increase or decrease over the course of the festival. Shammai wanted the candles to represent the days still to come, possibly because the Temple sacrifices during Sukkot were reduced by one bull per day. Hillel wanted the candles to represent the days that had already passed, so that the light would symbolize an increase in holiness; the purpose of ritual is to make us better people. Hillel won the argument.

The channukiah goes in the window unless there is a risk of attack by non-Jews. Then it can be on a table, as preserving life and safety is more important than ritual. We light the candles as soon as possible after the stars come out, and they burn for half an hour. Blessings are said after the shamash (servant candle) is lit but before the nightly candles are lit. Only the shamash may be used for a utilitarian purpose such as lighting or re-lighting the others. We read Psalms 113 to 118 every morning of the eight days, in which we learn God sees everything, lifts us up, gives us hope and purpose. Psalm 115 reads, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but cannot speak….” Daily readings from Numbers 7-8 describe offerings brought to the Tent of Meeting, and 8:1-4 talks about lighting the menorah. In Zechariah 2:14-4:7, an angel speaks for God, saying “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” The “miracle” is not a military victory, but an increase in spirituality.

Lesser-Known Detail:

The Fast of Tevet 10th comes shortly after Channukah to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar during which prophet/king Zedekiah was captured and his sons killed.

Rosh Chodesh & The Energy to Act

Also known as Yom Kippur Katan, Rosh Chodesh can be like a mini Yom Kippur, with fasting and prayer in preparation to receive the new month. A prayer is said outside at night:

“Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with His word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of His mouth. He gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. He is the true creator who acts faithfully, and He has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth, who will likewise be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator for His glorious majesty. Blessed are you, Lord, who renews new moons.”

Or words to that effect.  The source of the commandment to bless the new moon may be found in Exodus 12:2, which says, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first of the months for you.” Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 42a says, “Whoever blesses the month in its prayer time receives the Divine Presence.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (German, 19th century) wrote, “Each time the moon finds the sun again, each time it receives its rays of light afresh, God wants His people to find Him again, and to be illuminated with fresh rays of His light, wherever and however in their course they have had to pass through a period of darkness and obscurity….This renewal of the moon shall be a beginning of renewals for you. Noticing, realizing the fresh birth of the moon shall induce you to achieve a similar rejuvenation. You are to fix your moons, your periods of time, by taking note of this ever-fresh, recurring rejuvenation.”

In addition to the sabbath, which Heschel described as a sanctuary in time, we have a monthly occasion to renew our sense of awe at the beauty of the universe, and to get back on track if we have strayed off the path – if we have lost touch with our capacity for inner peace. To appreciate the natural world is to engage in what Heschel called “radical amazement.” To welcome the moon is to express gratitude for God’s creation, and thus to reaffirm the value of life.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to maintain inner balance, wholeness, integrity, and peace (aka shalom) when faced with stressful, tumultuous times. The pressure of being the primary supporter of a family of four, knowing I might lose my job in a couple of months, and if that happens, I will also lose my health insurance….Well, I’m a little flipped out, even though in theory I know I should relax about things that are beyond my control. This is another way of saying “trust God.”

When I hear the news, regardless of the source, what comes through most often is the urge to panic, give up, give in, and shut down. The daily onslaught of grief and mayhem overwhelms me. Sometimes I wonder if one of the goals of the news media is to manipulate us into feeling helpless and hopeless, or even to actively stoke racial and class divisions, so we will be so caught up in hating and worn down by misery that we won’t have the time or energy to change things.

Recently, I learned about rainwater catchment procedures, and felt empowered, because knowing how to collect rainwater for domestic use means I can learn the grim details about water privatization without sinking into despair. Even though I can’t afford the materials or installation now, the information shows that solutions are possible. If I wait for a movement or a message from outside to tell me what to do, whether from a political party, an organization, a business, or the government, I am more likely to end up serving an agenda that doesn’t help me or the people I care about.

Spiritual Dimensions of Sukkot

If Yom Kippur is designed to heighten our awareness of mortality, Sukkot shows us the impermanence of possessions. Everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. The sukkah, built immediately following Yom Kippur, is a temporary structure with three walls and a roof of branches placed far enough apart that we can see the stars through them. This is to remind us we are wholly dependent on God, the only real source of security. Everyone, rich or poor, is the same in this regard. We eat meals and also sleep in the sukkah. Each night, we are visited by the ancestors, who correspond to the seven of the ten sephirot (aspects or emanations of God) having to do with corporeal reality. We put out a special chair for them, as we do for Elijah at Pesach. In order of appearance:

Abraham & Sarah = chesed, loving kindness

Isaac & Rebecca = gevurah, strength in judgment

Jacob & Rachel = tiferet, beauty

Joseph & Leah = netzach, victory

Moses & Miriam = hod, glory

Aaron & Abigail = yesod, intimacy

David & Esther = malchut, majesty

Every morning, except for on Shabbat, we wave the lulav and etrog, either inside or outside of the sukkah, to symbolize God’s universal presence. The etrog (citron) corresponds to the heart, the letter Yud in Y-H-V-H, the person who knows tradition and also does good deeds. It has both flavor and fragrance. The lulav (palm branches) correspond to the spine, the letter Vav, and the person who knows Torah but doesn’t do the mitzvot. It has flavor, but no fragrance. The myrtle corresponds to the eyes, the letter Hay, and the person who does good deeds but doesn’t know enough. It has fragrance but no flavor. The willow corresponds to the mouth, the letter Hay, and the person who neither knows enough nor does enough. It has neither flavor nor fragrance. This collection of plants is known as the four species. They may be pagan symbols originally used by Semitic tribes, before the Hebrews, as part of their harvest celebrations. The personalities they represent are said to make up a community – all are beloved by God and all are needed. When the lulav and etrog are shaken, with the etrog in one hand and the lulav in the other, they go to the East, North, West, South (over the shoulder), Up, Down, and toward ourselves.  We become centered. A human being who demonstrates civility and loving kindness becomes a Tree of Life.

On the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the verdict from the High Holy Days is sealed. In Orthodox communities, people march around with the lulav and beat it into the floor, then save the remains as a broom to sweep out chametz in preparation for Pesach. The etrog may be pierced with cloves and saved for havdalah (the ritual closing of shabbat.)

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal explains, “In Tractate Sukkoth, two rabbis,  a teacher and his student, visit an older one. He has made his sukkah in a non-kosher way. The student is about to leave and state why, but his teacher stays, as does the student who gets the hint, and [they] make beracoth with the lulav, and eat, etc. After, the teacher tells the student that if the choice is to embarrass someone versus eating in a non-kosher sukkah, then eat in the non-kosher sukkah. The Rabbis tell us that while doing one mitzvah we are excused from doing another….Chesed always wins.”

Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, or 8th Day of Assembly, includes a prayer for rain and the reading of Ecclesiastes. While we are on the topic of rain, I encourage readers to learn about rainwater harvesting. The Talmud encourages us to be careful with resources. While alternative sources of energy exist, the planet holds a limited amount of fresh water. Benefits of collecting rainwater from our rooftops include reducing the amount of storm water runoff that goes into the sewer system, and replenishing the local aquifer which supports the ecology of the region. Also, it saves money on irrigation. While it is more complicated to collect and purify rainwater for indoor use, we may need to begin to think in those terms due to increasingly poor ground water quality, corporate efforts toward privatization of the world’s fresh water supply, and a growing population. (Recommended resources: American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and a 2009 documentary entitled “Blue Gold: World Water Wars” directed by Sam Bozzo, which is available in streaming video format on Netflix.)

Prelude to the High Holy Days

“I place before you life and good, death and evil. Choose life.” – Deuteronomy 30:19

The month of Elul marks the beginning of a period of introspection and self-evaluation. According to Rebbetzin Giti Fredman, with whom I have had occasion to study, Elul has a special energy or spirituality conducive to teshuvah (repentance, return, or reconnecting with God.) The month of Elul corresponds to the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf incident. We assess our behavior and spiritual condition, reconcile with enemies, and break out of negative patterns and deadening routines. We acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands. The theme of Selichot is human guilt and God’s forgiving nature. Rebbetzin Giti says the selichot (prayers said in the days leading up to the High Holy Days) focus on the thirteen attributes of God. We want to embody God’s attributes. We seek to grow in humility, gratitude, patience, honor, generosity, kindness, strength, tranquility, trust, enthusiasm, order, awareness, truth. As God says to Abraham, “Go for yourself” – lech lecha. When we are living according to our highest ideals, we tend to feel better, have better relationships and experiences, and a higher quality of life. In the Ashkenazic tradition, Selichot begins the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal says the soul God gives us each day is pure; every day is a fresh start. Ritual is a methodology to bring us to chesed, kindness. Judaism is about how we treat other people. With the armor of God, we become more like Teflon than Velcro. We experience a greater sense of inner peace when we understand that everything we have is a loan from God to be shared with others. When we have low self-esteem, we won’t enter the contest no matter how much affirmation we get. Our relationship with God has to be supreme, he says, because we are truly alone in the world. Even our partners and children are just icing on the cake. If others don’t like us, that’s none of our business. Fear leads to sin. We should ask ourselves what fears are motivating undesirable behavior. Without the fears, we don’t do the behaviors. We ask God to remove our fears. We need to recognize that what we have is enough, and who we are is enough. We are entitled to absolutely nothing. We need to practice gratitude and awareness of the daily miracle of existence.

Rosh Hashanah, popularly known as “the Jewish New Year” is really the Human New Year, as it commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve. Everyone is our brother or sister. Rosh Hashanah re-annoints HaShem as Sovereign of the Universe (malchut = kingship.) God is in charge. We are not. We renew our commitment to doing God’s will. God remembers everything we do. What we do matters. We carry our actions with us throughout our lives. When we make sincere teshuvah, God forgives sins against God. Sins against other people can only be forgiven by them. By Rosh Hashanah we should be well into making amends to others. We ask God to write us into the Book of Life. This means we ask to be spiritually connected instead of cut off from our Holy Spark. We seek inner liberation, freedom, clarity, and integration. When we grow spiritually, we help others rise with us. The reverse is also true.

Traditionally, the readings include Genesis 21, which tells the story of Abraham kicking out Hagar and Ishmael, and Genesis 22, which describes Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah. According to R’ Segal, there is a Midrash (story) about the Akedah (binding of Isaac) which says Abraham actually goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood for the fire, is burned on the altar, dies and is resurrected in three days, as in the Jesus story. Isaac returns after spending three years in Heaven studying with God, during which time he is cured of his “sweetness” (AKA developmental disability), then marries Rebecca. R’ Segal characterizes the story of the Akedah as one of “non-integration.” He says the Midrash on Isaac was removed, or no longer taught, after the emergence of Christianity. My own thoughts on the story of Isaac: 1) God is present in our love for our children, and 2) loving another human being is loving God.

We receive an angelic soul during the Days of Awe, the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, while we concentrate on the spiritual. R’ Segal says God would prefer for us to worship idols and get along with each other than to worship Him while treating each other badly. It is more important to be a good neighbor, and to treat our spouses, children, and others with kindness, to use “honest scales in business.” Judaism teaches that righteous people of all nations have a place in the World to Come. A righteous person is honest in business, treats others with ahavath chesed, and is not sexually violent. This is not complicated.

“To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy.” – Rabbi Irving Greenburg, The Jewish Way

By Yom Kippur we have made teshuvah to others.

“Repent one day before you die.” – Avot 2:15

On Yom Kippur we atone for sins against God. Rebbetzin Giti describes Yom Kippur as a time to work out the details with God about what repentance is going to look like. She also says the binding of Isaac demonstrates Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed, and as a result, Isaac embodies the promises made by God to Abraham. I wonder if our individual willingness to sacrifice ego-driven desires opens the way to let God into our lives. We reflect on our mortality to remind ourselves to live each day with the awareness, gratitude, and sense of purpose we would if we knew it were our last. It could be. Fasting and abstinence symbolize death of the ego. We also demonstrate we are human beings, not animals – we have the ability to master our instincts, and are capable of change. God is forgiving. When Moses brings down the second set of tablets they contain a more realistic and accepting set of instructions. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. We approach God with our confession, repentance, and request for forgiveness.

R’ Segal questions why Kol Nidre is still in the liturgy. The nullification of vows, he explains, dates back to the Inquisition and was intended to preserve Jewish faith under forced conversion. It was not meant to let people off the hook for breaking promises to each other. The prayer came into use in response to the Crusades. Rabbi Ted Falcon, in Judaism for Dummies, explains that Kol Nidre acknowledges that despite our best intentions, we may make promises to God in the coming year which we will fail to keep. Rabbi Falcon describes Kol Nidre as an advance request for forgiveness.

The communal confession exists because of the belief that we are all one – Israel is a single, collective soul. We don’t live in isolation. We are responsible for one another. Rabbi Segal extends this responsibility to all of humanity. He observes that although the notion of communal responsibility is often used for fundraising, it is meant to teach that when we sin, we drag others down with us. We are all in the same boat. If one passenger begins to drill a hole under his chair, everyone drowns.

On Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah, which is a story of sincere teshuvah – not by Jonah, but by the pagan king and the people of Ninevah. The judgment of God begins at the 1st of Elul and continues through Shemini Atzeret. As Rebbetzin Giti puts it, on Rosh Hashanah, God writes the letter; on Yom Kippur, He seals the letter, and on Hoshanah Rabbah, He mails the letter. But there is always an opportunity for teshuvah.

Religion: What is it good for?

A great deal of violence has been done in the name of God and religion. I can appreciate why atheists feel as they do. Religion is often used to justify anti-social behavior. As my husband is fond of saying, “The worst thing about religion is religious people.” And yet, to my mind, the notion that there is a creative force reponsible for the creation of the universe has merit. We don’t know. Fortunately, in pure Judaism we don’t have to know – in fact, we can’t know – who or what God is.

Some believe the spiritually advanced are blessed with wealth, if not also fame and beauty. They worship money, and tend to preach “survival of the fittest.” People like this frighten me because they think they are entitled to decide who is the fittest, and then apply that notion to human interactions. Others, who may have suffered significant personal loss, rail against the universe and demand to know why “God” would allow such things. They say they will not believe in a God who causes pain, misery, disaster, starvation, disease, mayhem, etc. Apologists for God will say that human beings are the source of evil in the world. “God” is a loaded term for many people.

I’ve found ways to re-frame religious ideas to make them relevant and meaningful in my life. Yes, we live in world we did not create and cannot control. Yes, bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. Yes, natural disasters are powerful and cause great harm. While we don’t get to decide what happens, we do get to decide how we will respond to it. I equate that choice with belief in God. We have the ability to create, as God does in Genesis. We have the ability to envision the kind of world we want to live in, and work to make it a reality. Religion is a set of tools. Ideally it should help us to become our best selves, teach life-enhancing, pro-social values, and make the world a better place. The concepts, theology, beliefs, and practices determine a methodology which is hopefully designed to help people pay attention to the right things. “Spirituality” is the extent to which we do pay attention to and act on what we profess to value. When people confuse the technology with the destination, I think they are missing the point.

Some questions you might ask:

1.) How do we develop an attitude or approach that works for us individually and collectively?

2.) What’s the most constructive use of our time?

What would it look like to envision God as an abstract representation of ethical standards and values, such as the ideals of kindness, compassion, love, mercy, service, honesty, altruism, and respect for life? What would it look like if we agreed every life has meaning and value, and is worthy of respect? What would it look like if we resisted the reptilian urges toward greed, deceit, selfishness, and materialism? What would it look like if this set of beliefs and attitudes are, themselves, our “God”? Imagine holding them in your mind and heart at all times, like a compass, or a light.

What matters is what people do, not why they say they do it, or who told them to do it. Would it be fair to define spirituality as loving people and using things, instead of the reverse?Whether an omniscient, benevolent Intelligence chose to create the universe and gave each one of us (hopefully) a conscience or the ability to make choices about how we conduct ourselves may be, on a practical level, somewhat irrelevant. If it is useful to believe in such a Being, because doing so provides a more solid foundation for continuing to do the right thing when faced with other not-so-nice choices, why not? I made a decision to believe in a Creator who is loving and wants the best for us, because for me, that’s helpful. No matter what we do, we are limited by human perception. Maybe science will have something definitive to say about it eventually, and that’s fine. I wish I could remember who said, but some famous rabbi or other said, “If I knew God, I would be God.” Judaism says God is essentially unknowable, so we don’t concern ourselves with the nature of God. We concern ourselves with conducting our lives in a way that makes a positive difference.

You do not have to be repressed to be spiritual. Faith doesn’t mean walking around with glazed eyes and a fake smile trying to act happy. The opposite it true. We don’t have to be perfect or enlightened. Faith means being honest with ourselves, realistic about our limitations and those of others, keeping things in perspective, and trusting that we can make good decisions about what is right. In his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, of whom I am a big fan, offers this test: Is the choice you are about to make based in love, altruism, honesty, and purity? If it is, go for it. If not, stop and reconsider.

How can religion move us forward? Often we are lost, off-center, caught up in the grind and flurry of holding down a job, getting through school, raising our kids, maintaining our relationships, maybe trying to build a list of achievements, or struggling to establish a higher standard of living. We want the house, the car, the clothes, the credentials, the accolades. Some people who get these things end up feeling empty inside. Some people may have more than we do, and we envy them. Others may have less, and we feel guilty. The relationship, job, or stuff we thought would make us happy didn’t provide a sense of meaning or purpose. Maybe we want to be part of a community, where we can offer something of value to others and gain their support as well. Maybe we want to feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. From what I’ve observed in my own life, the people who make a difference do so in one of two ways:

1.) They demonstrate, by being who they are, what love means.
2.) They create or discover something that transforms the lives of others.

What are the ingredients of an effective religious practice? For me, they are anything that makes life possible, worth living, helps me recognize my potential, and supports me in bringing my best qualities forward. When I pray, I imagine the stars, galaxies, solar systems, and the motion of the planets around the sun. I think of our planet as “alive” because it has life on it – so far, known to precious for its singularity. We are part of the network of living things, connected to the health of the planet. In a very real sense, we ARE “one with the universe.” That is not an abstract notion, it is a concrete reality.

Bronfman Foundation Study on Halfies

Thank God for this. The study is available for download here.  I’m grateful to all those who make the effort to listen and understand the experiences and perceptions of their children, grandchildren, and other extended family members.

O Coen Brothers

Late Saturday night, my husband whisked me out of the house without telling me where we were going. He took me to see the Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg. The graphic violence, bleakness, cynicism, and grotesque nature of most Coen Brothers movies turns me off, just so you know – but this was relatively tame.

The film opens with a Rashi quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” followed by a folk-tale-like vignette about an unlucky rabbi who helps a neighbor in a snowstorm. The rest of the story witnesses the inner struggle of a physics teacher who tumbles into a crisis of faith and meaning when his wife informs him she wants a divorce.

This could come across like one of  those message films, where you walk out of the theatre asking yourself and those around you, “What did they mean by that?” and no one has a clue, so you all figure it must have been profound. In this case, though, I think obscurity actually is the message. They seem to be saying the message of life is obscure, and we should just deal with it.

The movie got me thinking about Martin Buber’s classic I and Thou, in which he describes ways we may objectify others, relating to them as props or accessories. We may use other people to fulfill material or emotional needs, to perform roles that have nothing to do with who they are as individuals – as if people were interchangeable. We may choose a career path based on the label that path represents, failing to recognize our own patterns, preferences, limitations, and true talents.

A Serious Man encapsulates reality, like the Book of Job in comedic form. Nothing goes according to our plans. Sh*t happens. And then, just when we start to get a grip, the excrement hits the propeller. And then we die. What can we learn from this? To appreciate each moment as it comes, and see it for what it is – to abandon our scripts, to receive our waking moments with innocence. The wind tunnel of chaos is not an enemy; it is what it is.  God isn’t the sh*tstorm, but is, instead, how we respond to the sh*tstorm.