The Interplay of Light and Dark
by Rabbi David Zaslow
What’s the darkest night of the year? You might guess the winter solstice on December 21st! But that’s the shortest night of the year, not necessarily the darkest. Each year, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, we mark the new moon of Tevet. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, near the end of the lunar month. The sixth night of Hanukkah is the evening of 1st of Tevet.
During the days surrounding Hanukkah we contemplate the interplay between light and darkness. The autumn has passed, and we are in the middle of the winter. In an exquisite paradox our rabbis teach us that although it is light that permits us to see, it is in the darkness that we can see the farthest. During daylight we only see what is near, but as soon as night comes we can see the stars, which are light-years away from us. This paradox has a very profound application during Hanukkah, since it is through our past mistakes (the darkness within our past) that we have learned to see the greatest distances.
We don’t need candles in the daylight and we don’t need Hanukkah in July. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not the season to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during the season of the autumn equinox (September 21st, which falls near Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur). The shortest and darkest days of the year, around the winter solstice, are given to us by the Creator so that we can go deeply inside ourselves and be thankful for all the transformations that have already occurred.
During Hanukkah we celebrate how our past negative traits (the darkness) are being transformed (the candle) into something that will turn out for the good (the full light of the upcoming spring). The month of Kislev is a time to integrate the shadow that is within each of us. What happens when we light a candle in the darkness during Hanukkah? We make shadows! We have enough light to see what is near us, and we preserve enough of the darkness so that we can see the lights in the far distance.
For Hanukkah to have real meaning it has to be more than eating latkes, giving gifts, or even telling the marvelous stories of the miracle of the oil and the world’s first battle for religious freedom. For Hanukkah to have meaning it must be personal. The word for “the oil” in Hebrew is הַשֶׁמֶן ha-shemen. It contains the same letters as the word for soul, which is נְשָׁמָה neshamah. Oil has something to do with soul. The word for “wick” in Hebrew is פְּתִילָה petillah, which contains the same Hebrew letters as the word for “prayer,” which is תְּפִלָּה t’fillah. Prayer is a conduit for the soul the same way a wick is a conduit for the oil. Prayer is not an end in itself, any more than the wick is the goal of the candle.
Prayer is the means to an end, and the end is a connection to the Divine. In the same way, the wick transports the oil to the flame and permits the flame to be continuous and steady. Only when we light the wick does it draw up the oil in a continuous flame. Only when we ignite our prayers with passion does the light burn continuously, seemingly on its own. And as anyone who loves to pray knows, a good davven lasts for eight days. That’s the real miracle of Hanukkah, available to everyone of us.
The Kites We Fly
by Rabbi David Zaslow
I was eight years old in 1955 when Hurricane Diane struck the East Coast. I lived in in a little beach community called Sea Gate, in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The day of the storm was dark, and the rain soared downward and even sideways across our front window. I was sick that week and was home with little to do but watch the wind on the beach as the sand was tossed high into the air like hair wildly brushed. I saw the turbulent tides of the Atlantic form high swells that jumped onto the beach as if trying to reach my house.
That day I built my first box-kite. I concentrated with all my might as I meticulously glued each piece of long, thin popsicle-stick wood and plastic skin together. I neatly wound the string and knotted the end to a stick that was to be my spool. The spool was a kind of steering devise that I could tug and turn, commanding my kite to perform all sorts of amazing aerial acrobatics. I was so proud of my checkerboard blue and red masterpiece. On August 19th, the rains were over, the sun was bright and reborn after the storm, and the air itself felt alive. The winds calmed down to a gusty 25 m.p.h., and I figured it was perfect weather to fly my box kite on the beach, even though I was still a little feverish. I swaggered in the wind to the beach, holding my kite close to my chest.
Every kid knows that normally he/she has to run to get his kite aloft, but that day when I let go of the kite the wind instantly took hold like some gigantic magnet. A gust pulled my kite and unwound hundreds of feet of string from the stick in mere seconds. Up and up, it was like a rocket on a straight line toward heaven. And then…the unthinkable. The kite, my first box kite, the kite I had made by hand, snapped from the stick and continued out across the Atlantic. I felt insulted, shocked, and angry. The wind seemed to know what it was doing, and how it would affect an eight-year old boy who was flying his first box-kite.
Hurricane, rain, beach, kite, string, spool, and child. We have all faced hurricanes – moments of grief, loss, rebirth, change, and transformation. We have all built kites – our jobs, hobbies, and relationships, and we tie our kites to a very thin string and knot them to the spool of our hearts. King Solomon chanted a poem that we read each autumn on Sukkot that says “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” If we try to fly a kite when the winds are too strong…snap, it will likely break away from us. Everything has its own time.
In a way all of our personal spiritual practices, our prayer and meditation, are as delicate as a box kite. We protect ourselves by practicing in communal gatherings, in the privacy of our homes, or surrounded by the beauty of nature. But like a kite on a string, we are all so vulnerable. Take away the beauty of nature and replace it with the fury of nature– and snap, the kite will break loose. Take away the elegance of a synagogue service and we find ourselves struggling to do the inner work that each holiday calls forth.
The festival of Sukkot that just passed is a reminder of the how delicate our dwelling places really are, and how subject we all are to the winds and rains of life. Yet it is those very rains that make spring possible. So, may the Holy One bless us all to make our kites well, but to know when to fly them… never in strong winds the day after a hurricane on a beach in Brooklyn.
The Accent of Faith
by Rabbi David Zaslow
I remember being at the film “Schindler’s List” with an Israeli friend who pointed out that everytime Hebrew was spoken a different accent was used. Jews from German pronounced a Hebrew word one way, Jews from Poland pronounced the same word differently. But my Israeli friend pointed out that the accents in the movie differed within the same family, and she did not think it was a “continuity” error on the part the film’s director, Steven Speilberg. Rather, she thought, that it was a subtle statement that all Jewish people are unified, even when there are differences in accent. A personal story: I remember in Brooklyn that some of us with heavy accents pronounced the word “oil” as “earl.” My dad, for example, would be in a restaurant and say, “Pass the earl and vinegar.” Then in the early 60’s a pop song came out called “Duke of Earl.” And how did my father pronounce the title of the song? He’d say “Duke of Oil.” Like any good teenager I pointed the contradiction out to him. “Dad,” I said, “You say ‘Oil’ when you should say ‘Earl’ and you say ‘earl’ when you should say ‘oil.’ Can’t you get it right?” He laughed and jokingly said, “Mind your business. It’s my accent!” I got the point, and today I get the point at an even deeper level than my father may have intended. A spiritual journey has an accent. One of us may prefer rituals and formal services, another prefers deeds of loving kindness. Each mitzvah is part of the accent of our souls. Some of us prefer communal prayer, others prefer to perform g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving-kindness). Some prefer quiet meditation, others prefer ecstatic davvenen (prayer). There is no right or wrong about our choices, there is no better or worse since these choices are not in the category of morality. A spiritual accent is simply the way we filter the Divine commandments and shape them to suit our own individual and communal needs. Each accent has its own innate beauty. But the secret to deepening our spiritual path is to keep reformulating the way we speak and to permit our metaphorical accent to take on new shapes and sounds. In Judaism this means to continually take on new mitzvot and add them to our repertoire of Divine responses. In this way we better ourselves, better the world, and make deeper and deeper connections to the world of the soul. The world we live in is but one dimension within many worlds. There are worlds above this world, worlds below this world, and worlds within this world. Some call these worlds realms, others call them dimensions, and some prefer to call them levels. The labels are but metaphors pointing to the depths of reality. Not just the simple reality of our day-to-day lives, but the totality of reality which encompasses everyday existence and the transcendental. Studying Kabbalah we learn (Mee-malay kole ole-meen v’so-vayv kole ole-meen) that G-d “fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds.” There is no “outside” G-d to worship and believe in. There is no artificial split between the transcendence of G-d and the immimance of G-d. Worlds within worlds. Dimensions within dimensions. It is all part of a single fabric. May Hashem bless each and every one of us to fix the personal fabric of our souls where it needs to be fixed. May we blessed with the courage to adjust our behaviors in ways that put us more and more in touch with the Divine.
Our Fragmented Sense of Time
by Rabbi David Zaslow
As I think about my father’s life, the distance between 1930 and 1963 seems vast. So many stories took place within those years: the Great Depression, World War II, the 50’s, and the start of the 60’s. Yet, in an odd way, the distance in time within my own life between 1970 and 2003 doesn’t seem so vast in comparison. Historically, of course, there have been huge changes within the past three decades: the cultural changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and feminism, all the way to the technological revolution as we entered the age of personal computing and the Internet.
But I’m referring to my subjective sense about the passage of time. My father’s life seems to have passed slowly. My life seems to have passed quickly. There’s nothing “true” about what I’m saying. After all, thirty-three years is thirty-three years whether it’s 1930 to 1963 or 1970 to 2003. But it’s our personal, subjective sense of time that gives our memory its reference points. I remember when I came to Ashland in 1970. I remember when my daughter was born in 1981 and when my son was born in 1983.
Today Rachel is a college graduate working in the “old country,” in Brooklyn. Of all places, she picks Brooklyn! I was off to college in 1965 during the first major East Coast blackout. She’s out of college and in Manhattan walking back to Brooklyn during the last blackout in August. I remember leaving for college in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1965, and here I am thirty-eight years later preparing to drive my son to for his first day of college in Lewiston, Idaho.
So, what does all this temporal measuring and sentimental reminiscing have to do with the upcoming High Holidays? Everything, I suspect. Everything. After all, what is autumn all about if not for returning and remembering? If not for looking back and looking forward? If not for the most personal, personal examination of successes and missed opportunities? The High Holidays aren’t just for the big stuff, for our major sins of commission and omission. The High Holidays are not necessarily about the macro-dramas of our lives. More often, they seem to be about all the small stuff that, when collaged together, form a picture – a picture of our fragmented lives during the year that has just passed.
In autumn the leaves begin to fall, and internally we begin to fall as well. The days grow colder, and we grow colder as well. Nature returns to its Source and we return to that same Source as well. The four-step program of Jewish time follows the rhythm of nature: the public gratitude we express to Hashem on Rosh HaShanah; the private yet communal inwardness we experience during Yom Kippur; the outwardness we live during Sukkot, and the synthesis of the inner and outer during Simchat Torah. Together all four holidays form a single picture, a mirror of our lives.
By taking the time to experience all four of the high holidays we are saying, “Yes” to the Creator. “Yes, create a new person within each me. Yes, let me examine the past so that I may be present in this moment. And may my presence in this moment give me the courage and momentum I need to reach my tomorrow.” May the Holy One bless each of us with good memories and changes that are as natural as the seasons themselves.
Freedom in This Season
by Rabbi David Zaslow
As we know, there are many levels of freedom. One person is free on the outside and bound on the inside. Another is bound in chains and free in her soul. Passover in Hebrew is פֶּסַח pesach and the word has its etymology in the leaping or skipping movement of lambs. “Passover” is not really the correct translation for Pesach. “Leaping Over” might be more accurate. Leaping implies that the obstacle is still there. The journey from here to there, from slavery to freedom, is one that we all make. Often we don’t really eliminate our obstacles, we simply leap over them. Maybe the term “a leap of faith” comes from this notion. How do I get out of my chains, habits, negative attitudes? How to I remove myself from the forces of the Pharaoh that I grew up with? How do I get out of my private Egypt, which in Hebrew is מִצְרַיִם mitzrayim, meaning tight, bound, and narrow places?
The answer may be in our biology. Birth requires the infant to make his first major journey. From the womb into the realm of gravity, the infant must travel through her first narrow place. From birth on, movements and changes will not be so easy. Yet the remembrance of our birth will shape our destiny; will be a determinant factor in the way we handle problems and challenges throughout our lives. I do not like the term “birth trauma” as much as “birth template.” Birth and death are the two most powerful experiences in our lives. They bookend both beginning and end. All issues in between (i.e., during life) will be placed upon the template of what we remember from birth and how we anticipate death.
Pesach is the season of our liberation. All the images in the book of שְׁמוֹת Sh’mot (Exodus) come into play during the springtime. We want to get outside. We need to get outside. We want to be free, liberated. We yearn to fall in love. The festival of Passover is a marker for what is already happening biologically and in nature. The seder dinner is not just a reenactment of a historical event, but a dress rehearsal for what we are each going to do in our lives the morning after the celebration.
During Yom Kippur we dwell on our sins. We chant עַל חֵטְא ahl chayt, confessing that we have sinned. We take inventory of all that is inside. We mark each internal item with a label: “keep,” “discard,” or “change.” We make new vows, dissolve the old ones, and methodically make a file of all transactions. It is a careful, a care-full process.
Not so during Passover. Pesach is a care-free, an almost care-less process. It requires action quickly. We need to act NOW. The angel of death will ride over our homes at midnight. Quick. Clean house. Quick. Take the lamb of our innocence and steak its blood (our own anguish) on the doorposts. Quick. The dawn is coming. We leave in a hurry. No time for inventory and careful filing or analysis. Now is the time to make the leap, to make the skip.
Have a problem? Skip over it! Have an old habit that you want to change? Skip over it! Have a negative behavior pattern? Skip over it! Don’t analyze. Don’t think about your problems too much: just make the change. The words from the Torah describe God as having taken us out of Egypt “…with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand.” What a metaphor! It means that we’re not alone. If we take the first step, God will lead us to freedom. In the springtime there is “nothing to do” to make liberation happen. It just seems to happen by itself. Something invisible in the universe will take care of it. Not all the time. Not during the autumn, but yes, now, during the spring, this is possible.
A wonderful Christian once asked Reb Zalman if Jews were saved by grace or works? The Rebbe answered, “From Yom Kippur to Purim (autumn through winter) we’re saved by works. From Passover to Rosh HaShanah (spring through summer) we’re saved by grace.” It’s a funny answer, but it’s true. Judaism sees a balance between our actions (works) and God’s actions (grace). We need both grace and works. We’re the ones who make the preparations for a long winter, storing up food and supplies. But during springtime? We feel the hand of God’s grace descending. If we wait, the bounty of the land and trees will feed us like living angels of the Holy One.
It’s not a choice between grace or works. It’s both, each one in its time and proper season. Doing it yourself: that’s the “works” of autumn. Leaving it to God: that’s the grace of Springtime. Liberation is not something to strive for. It’s built into the hard drive of the seasons, of our biology. There’s nothing to do, just BE! So, when the moment comes and you hear God’s voice say “make the change,” LEAP.
by Rabbi David Zaslow
Okay, I admit it. I’m prejudiced! I’m a New Yorker and everything New York is Jewish and everything out of New York is not-so-Jewish. So Italians from New York are Jewish even if they’re Catholic, and Jews in Los Angeles are not-so-Jewish even if they’re Jewish. Bagels from New York are Jewish. Bagels in Ashland are round chunks of chewy bread with holes in the center. No self-respecting New Yorker would ever buy a jalapeno bagel. My wife, my holy Devorah, outed me last month as an ethnocentric, bialy-centric New Yorker who has a very distorted view of the size of America. I remember a map they sold in New York called “A New Yorker’s View of America.” New York was huge (pronounced “youge” please) and the rest of America was all shrunken. I should have bought it!
I used to hear my parents talk about the “old country” with sentimental yearning. When they would say something in Yiddish and I’d ask them to translate, they’d fumble for words and finally proclaim, “You just can’t translate this into English. Words have a different meaning in Yiddish.” Of course, they meant that Yiddish was better than English and it would be degrading to try to explain some nuance of translation to me in such a cold and intellectual language as English. I never understood. Now, after 32 years in Ashland, Oregon, I get it. There are things a New Yorker can say that just cannot be translated. I understand Tony Soprano even when he isn’t talking. Body language, food, posture, it’s all part of the language. To me, New York is my old country. Okay, New Jersey too. Philadelphia but not Pennsylvania. Not Connecticut at all. Yonkers? All right, Yonkers but not Brewster. White Plains? All right. White Plains too.
So what is it about the culture we grew up with that gets into our bones so deeply? I don’t want to analyze this too deeply. See, my love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and hatred for the Los Angeles Dodgers is really quite objective and based on facts. I don’t want some two-bit sociologist writing a paper on the “relativity” of the teams we root for. It may be true for other teams, but the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, are mythic not relative. In fact, the Dodgers are still in Brooklyn – that’s how deep my faith is. And Jackie Robinson lives! Maybe not on the physical plane, but in a higher dimension for sure. So when the Dodgers actually do return to Brooklyn (and the Giants return to the Bronx for that matter), and they will, it won’t be a shock to New Yorkers. Okay, it will be a shock to Yankee fans, but it won’’t be a shock to most other normal humans (pronounced “yu-mans” please) from the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, or Brooklyn.
So, “this is the bit,” as my high-school boxing coach Enrie Spanokos used to say. It’’s dangerous to confuse culture with morality. There’s nothing innately good or bad about living in Minnesota, Tucson, Miami, or Brooklyn. Tribal wars are started over the confusion of morality and culture. Religion is a system to organize spirituality, and each religion is like a culture. This group stands. That group sits. This group sprinkles with water. That group dunks in water. This group is ecstatic. That group is passive. There’s no good or bad about it. It’s all about personal preference. It’s all about style.
This is not to say that style is not important. Believe me, I’d rather be dead than eat a jalapeno bagel. But jalapeno bagel eaters (perish the thought!) do not have to repent on Yom Kippur. They should, but they don’t have to. Religion is the culture that organizes spirituality, but the essence of any great religion is its spirituality, not its particular ritual practices (i.e., we do Shabbos on Saturday, Christians do Lord’s Day on Sunday). Now, don’’t get me wrong, I do not want to merge spiritual practices any more than I want to merge bagels. But beneath the religion, beneath the culture of the religion, is spirituality: a deepening connection to God, a living connection to the ancestors, a connection to history, and a sense of profound hope for the future. It is the sacred task of each religion to develop a path that will lead its followers to some degree of direct experience to that which is understood as the Divine. As the new paradigm unfolds before us it seems crucial for all all to bear in mind that the path is simply the path – it is not the destination.
Gabi Meyer recently taught us about the difference between the map and the land. I may like my map, but my map is not the earth itself. Judaism is my map. Judaism is my culture. My synagogue is my culture. I am devoted to my culture for sure, but the culture is not my goal. My personal connection to God is my goal. My person to person connection to each of you is my goal. If my Judaism helps me to get to God, then it is a good religion. If the Havurah helps me reach these goals, then it is a good organization. And, last but not least, if the Brooklyn Dodgers can get me to a game in Ebbets Field, then it is, indeed, the best team that has ever lived.
A Covenant Beyond Reason
by Rabbi David Zaslow
In the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) there are three kinds of mitzvot (commandments from God). The first are called mishpatim or “judgments.” These are the logical, universal, moral commandments discovered by all peoples in all spiritual traditions. Honor your mother and father, do not murder, do not steal, love your neighbor as yourself – all fall into this category of logical, ethical commandments. These commandments can also be thought of as what Thomas Jefferson thought of as “natural law,” or the Torah which is universally discovered by observing the most efficient systems within nature and human society.
Over time all cultures, and religions come to the same conclusion that murder and stealing are negative, counter-productive, and therefore prohibited behaviors. In Judaism gossip can be deemed to be a metaphorical form of murder if the words “kill” someone’s reputation. Good people of all faiths, I am sure, would agree that murder and stealing in their common or metaphorical forms are against their will of the Divine.
The second category of mitzvot are eidot, or “memorial rituals.” For example, in the Torah God commands the Jewish people to make a seder (festive meal) in the springtime to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. The Festival of Passover is a family oriented retelling of the exodus story. During the holiday of Purim the Jewish people retell the story of Queen Esther. During the holiday of Hanukkah the story of the miracle of the light is retold. In other words, these not universal commandments, but strictly tribal reenactments to help those who are Jewish remember their history.
Certainly there are moral and ethical elements to these memorial rituals. For example, on Passover week learn about the importance of physical freedom; on Hanukkah we learn about the necessity of religious freedom. But these ethical teachings are a result of performing the memorial rituals. Every culture, religion, and society creates its own unique memorial rituals based upon local and cultural history.
The third category, under which britt milah (the covenant of circumcision) falls, is the most mysterious. This category is called hukkim which we translate as “statutes.” These include kosher dietary laws and circumcision. What are they for? There is no clear answer. Why do we do them? There is no clear answer. The best we can do is rationalize. We do these mitzvot to show our love for God. We call it the practice of bittul hanefesh, (lit. “negation of the soul”) to put the rational mind aside so that the heart and soul might open.
There are be clear and precise reasons for this kind of mitzvah (commandment). They can be studied, debated, and rationalized but no one can claim to be able to explain it them logically as one can explain the mishpatim (judgments) and eidot (memorial rituals).
The ancient rite begins with God’s desire to make a covenant with it the patriarch Abraham. The token, or sign, of this pact is the willingness of Abraham to make a sacrifice. In the words of the Torah, Genesis 17:10-11, “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”
A modern person might ask, “Why do we take this commandment literally? Why not invent a ceremony that would satisfy our modern sensibilities?” Interestingly, the Torah written 3,300 years ago seems to anticipate our need for reason, or at least an answer to the question, what is the inner meaning of circumcision? In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah says, “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul…”
It almost seems as if God is trying to explain the profound impact of the ritual as means of increasing compassion and empathy. In other words, the intent of the ritual is much more profound than just the technical procedure of removing the foreskin. In abstaining from non-kosher foods we may not need a clear reason, but must we cause needless pain to our sons with such a ancient ritual?
Jewish tradition says, “Yes.” When administered sensitively the britt ceremony is the most incredible father/son bonding experience. It is not a means, as some critics have suggested, of reproducing patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement. On the contrary, it seems to be a means of reproducing male love and compassion. Our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters experience the awesome spiritual bonding power of blood every month. Men have this opportunity only during circumcision.
There is nothing moral or immoral about the choices we make about circumcision. This is not a moral mitzvah! It is a spiritual practice that is purposely not based on logic. The ritual is not necessarily about aesthetics, good medicine, or even the power of tradition.
The britt can be a once in a lifetime chance for the souls of father and son to bond in the deepest way imaginable. As a rabbi, this is the intention that I bring into the rite. I suggest to the fathers that they consider holding the hands of their sons during the circumcision, and to ask God to bless their sons with love, peace, health, and joy. I tell the fathers not to deny that there will be some pain, and to see themselves carrying that pain for their sons.
I sometimes teach the fathers the story of Abraham binding his son on the alter and ask them to practice the kind of trust in God that Abraham had in that awesome moment. I suggest that they imagine the britt milah ceremony as a reenactment of that event. I encourage the dads to make contact with their own emotions and to let the tears come on behalf of their sons, and for all the pain their sons will experience in their lives. I encourage the dads to cry and to let those tears be a kind of prayer or offering for all children. This is the essence, I believe, of making a covenant, a spiritual pact with the Holy One.
A Personal Story
In 1984 our son Ari had a beautiful, natural, home birth. Our daughter Rachel was born in the same bed and into the same loving environment three years earlier. My wife Devorah and I were resolute about our decision not to circumcise our son. We felt like pioneers braving the obstacles of both family and Jewish tradition. We reasoned that if we made such an effort to create a loving welcome into the world, how could we inflict unnecessary pain upon this beautiful soul just because of what seemed to be an archaic tradition?
How we all change! In 1988 I had a spiritual awakening. I was forty-years-old when I “heard the call,” and soon I was on the path to becoming a rabbi. At first my personal spiritual practices and study were not a contradiction to having an uncircumcised son. Afterall, my original reasoning against the ritual still seemed true.
But little by little something inside me was changing. Not a sense of returning to tradition. Not a sense of tribal loyalty. Not even a sense that our decision not to circumcise was a mistake. But a sense that there is a difference between a circumcision and a britt. A britt is a covenant or partnership with the Divine. I was experiencing this covenant myself firsthand. I no longer saw Jewish rituals as symbolic. They were, when conducted properly, not symbols but part of a spiritual technology for covenenting with God.
Shabbat candlelighting was no longer a quaint representation of an ancient fire ritual. The wine was not a symbol but an actuality. Candles and wine were signals to G-d that our family was ready for Sabbath. And when we sang the Friday evening song to welcome angels into our home it wasn’t because it was symbolic. We sang it because we were actually welcoming real angels. We blessed our children because we were connecting the souls of our children to Shechinah (the feminine name for the Divine Presence of God).
We arranged for Ari’s belated circumcision when he was six-years old. My change of mind was strictly spiritual. I believed that G-d’s covenant was a real energy pact. I believed that Elijah was an animate energy force, and that his chair at a circumcision was not just symbolic. And if there was a psychological benefit for Ari to have his penis look like mine, then that would be an added benefit.
The next morning, while lying on the living room floor together I told my son, my only son, that had I done this when he was eight days old there would have hardly been any pain. I told him that I didn’t do it then because I didn’t want to cause him any pain. I asked his forgiveness for causing him so much pain now.
His answer still gives me shivers, “Of course I forgive you Daddy. But why didn’t you do it then? I wanted you to do it when I was eight days old!” My mind went numb. I thought, “What did he mean by ‘I wanted you to do it then?’ Dare I ask?” With tears streaming down both our cheeks we sat together in silence. Six years late, but the father/son bonding experience was extraordinary.
Selected in the anthology “Best Jewish Writing of 2002.” Originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Spring 2002.
Darkness and Light
by Rabbi David Zaslow
In Isaiah 45:7 the prophet utters the words he hears from Hashem, “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, Hashem, make these….” Isaiah then continues with his own words, “Woe unto him that strives with his Maker….Shall the clay say to him that fashions it, “What are you making?”
These passages are speaking to the riddle of good and evil. How can God who desires good permit evil to exist? The answer is resolved (sort of resolved) in our tradition with the idea that the riddle is really a paradox; something we simply have to live with, struggle with, and ultimately permit to be an unresolved mystery. Unsatisfying, isn’t it? When we see good people suffer and evil people thrive, something arises in me that just wants to “strive with my Maker.” But “woe unto me” when I do. I get myself deeper into despair over all the unnecessary suffering in the world.
Yet, here’s another paradox: Every time I tempt the “woe unto me” by “striving with my Maker” I use the very force of evil that Isaiah warns us about, and I seem to come out a level higher. It’s as if God is tempting me NOT to take these words too literally, but to strive like Abraham does on behalf of Sodom, or as Moses does on behalf of Israel.
In fact, our tradition applauds using the forces of rebellion, the forces of seeming independence from God, in order to trump God’s hand. And every time this is done in the name of goodness and humanity, God folds the cards and declares we’ve won. Freud contended with God against the lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Jonas Salk contended with God against polio. The Jewish people contended with God after the Holocaust and forced Great Britain’s hand for an independent Israel. And Einstein contended with God against the mysteries of the universe itself.
Martin Buber taught that evil is simply the lowest rung of goodness. He taught that out of evil itself can come great good. He invited us to take a look at our own lives. Does goodness come by itself? No, it comes in contrast to our mistakes, our sins. When we err and see it for what it is, the good that comes out of it is even greater than the good that exists where there was no prior sin. Does this justify the sin? Buber says no. But we will make mistakes. And what matters is what we do with them. Sin, transformed, creates an extraordinary light. How the world deals with our relationship to the earth; how nations at war deal with their enemies; how we deal with each other – striving in these areas may catapult humanity into the greatest renaissance of peace ever known.
A millennium of peace, the messianic age– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. God continues to tell Isaiah what will someday happen: “Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open and let them bring forth salvation. And let righteousness spring up together.”
During the Hanukkah season we light candles, not curse the darkness. During the darkest time of the year we tell not only stories of good triumphing over evil, but stories of evil itself transforming. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not a time to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during equinox, not solstice. The darkest days are days for going deeply inside ourselves and being thankful for all the transformations that have occurred; celebrating how our past negative traits have been used for good in our lives when we were willing to face the shadow, own it, repair the damage, and then move on.
May the new year, and the new millennium, bring God’s promise of blessing and joy to each of us. May we each have the courage to light the menorah next week with the knowledge that only because of the darkness can we even appreciate the light. Only because of our suffering can we appreciate our joys. Only because of our mistakes can we appreciate our transformations.
As we enter a new era, the mystery remains. Good people are still suffering. Nations are still at war with each other over things as trite as land, power, and material wealth. And I’m going to spend Hanukkah striving with my Maker. How? By loving my neighbor as myself just a little bit more. By loving my incredible wife and children even more. By lighting the candles each night and meditating on their meaning.
A Jewish Renewal Approach to Prayer
by Rabbi David Zaslow
How many of us are saddened that in our childhoods we learned the words to our Jewish prayers, but we rarely knew what we were saying? And today how many of us feel left out of services because we simply can’t read the Hebrew words quickly enough, or at all? Early in our Jewish educations we learn to pronounce the Divine Name as Adonai. In these times, when talking about the Lord many Jews prefer to use gender neutral names like Hashem (which literally means “The Name”), the Eternal, or the Holy One. The ineffable Name of God is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letter Name) and contains both masculine and feminine attributes of the Holy One. It is sometimes mistransliterated as “Jehovah” and translated in the masculine as “Lord.” The Holy Name is spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, and hey. Yet very few of us have ever been taught the inner meaning of this Name in relation to the structure of our services. Further, what does it mean when we repeatedly read in the siddur about God’s Name alone being exalted and praised?
The kabbalists of the sixteenth-century who lived in Safed used the image of Jacob’s ladder to describe the order of prayers in the siddur. Further, they helped us identify the psycho-spiritual reasons for this order, and it is a joyous endeavor to learn about it. They taught that each of the four letters of God’s ineffable Name represent the four rungs of life: body, emotion, intellect, and spirit. In turn, the order of prayers in the siddur follow these organic levels, and the petitioner is like one who climbs a ladder from earth to heaven. All siddurim follow a very similar pattern and order of prayers. Siddurim also include the innovations of these same kabbalists who created the Kaballat Shabbat and the Havdallah services, and who are responsible for some of the most beautiful liturgy in the siddur.
In the weekday morning service, for example, we wake up and begin with the rung of prayers concerning the body known as the B’rachot HaShachar, thanking the Holy One for permitting us to awaken, and for the proper functioning of our various body parts, including breath. This represents the lower hey of the Name representing the bodily level of life. Next, we move from acknowledgment to emotion-filled praise. This second rung in the service is known as the P’sukei D’Zimra, and many of the psalms are located there. This section represents the vav in Hashem’s Name and represents the emotional level of life. The third rung of the service is the Kriat Shema, which begins with the Barachu and continues with the blessings surrounding the Shema. On this level we move from praise to declaration. When the Shema is recited we declare that Adonai, whose Name mirrors the four levels of our lives, is an indivisible unity. This third section stands for the upper hey representing the intellect.
The fourth rung in the service is called by several names: the Amidah, Shemonah Esray, T’fillah, or just simply the Prayer. Our rabbis teach that if we climb the first three rungs of the ladder with concentration and joy we now can enter the gates where we can truly pray (i.e. ask the Creator to attend to our personal needs as sentient beings). This fourth rung corresponds to the yod of the Divine Name and represents soul level of life.
Through an inspired series of 18 benedictions we can actually feel what has been described as oneness or cleaving (d’vaykut) to the Holy One. A careful study of each level of the service reveals an exquisite internal four-rung ladder within each individual rung. In fact, each major prayer within each rung contains its own mini four-rung ladder. The effect of this knowledge during prayer can be kaleidoscopic, and is an emotionally thrilling experience. Prayer then becomes like a journey inside of a crystal, only this crystal is the essence of God’s own Being in whose image we are continually being created.
The image of Jacob’s ladder is not the only metaphor that has been used to describe the deep infrastructure of the prayerbook. In his Meta Siddur, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank writes, “The dynamic metaphor of climbing a ladder conveys that the davvenen is intended to facilitate a symphony of prayer states. Another possible metaphor (considered by Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and that I heard from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) is that of entering the Temple, visiting the Holy of Holies, and exiting the Temple. One may, nowadays, consider the recapitulation of the stages of evolution. I like to imagine blending all three metaphors: as one ascends the rungs of the ladder and enters ever deeper into the Temple, one finds oneself changing into a more and more evolved, complicated being.”
The relationship between the petitioner and the Holy One is traditionally compared to that of a parent and child, or between King and servant. Our sages ask us to think of the prayer service in the same way we think of a child needing something from his or her parent. The clever child doesn’t just ask for what he or she needs. First the child acknowledges how good it is to be alive, and to be in such a wonderfully designed body (Birkat HaShachar). Next, the child lavishes praises upon the father or mother (P’sukei D’Zimra). The loving parent now suspects that the child wants something, but is deeply flattered since the child is so sincere. Secretly, the parent wants the child to have what he or she needs, but also realizes how important it is for the child’s inner development to go through this process.
The child then makes the ultimate declaration that his or her parent is the only father or mother he will ever have (K’riat Shema). The father or mother joyously and humorously asks, “Okay, so what do you want? How much is it going to cost?” This, of course, invites the child to be direct in his or her petition. The child feels so at one with the parent, and the parent feels so at one with the child, that the asking and the receiving becomes the natural expression of their deep love for one another. So, it is with us as petitioners before the Living God. When we finally reach the point of asking (in the Amidah) our sages suggest that we should sincerely feel that we are as deeply connected to our Heavenly Father as we are our earthly parents.
Today, even as less masculine or hierarchical comparisons are being explored, the four-level infrastructure of the prayer service itself remains unchallenged. As a ladder for entry into the Heavenly realm each rung, and the rungs within each rung, have organic function. The rote recitation of prayers with congregants standing and sitting like actors taking cues is not what the sages of the Talmud ever expected from us as we talk to the Creator of the Universe. Prayer, they all taught, must have intention, or kavannah. The words must be said slowly enough to be both understood and felt, and may even be said in the vernacular if that makes comprehension easier.
From the introduction to “Ivdu et Hashem b’Simcha” a prayerbook for Renewal edited by Rabbi David Zaslow (firstname.lastname@example.org)