Saturday, December 28, 2019

Seventh Night of Chanukah: Tell

A few years ago, I took part in a Passover writing exercise, offered by my friend, the Rabbi (who is also a writer, and a damned good one): write a short something-or-other, based upon a given prompt, every day for the 15 days of Nisan that lead to the first seder of Passover. I tried, I really did, I tried to write something every day. A noble attempt, but it didn’t happen. Even so, I managed to kick something out for one prompt: Tell. 

Of course, the first thing I thought about, given that Passover prompt, was Bye, Bye Birdie, replete with Hugo, Kim, and Ed Sullivan. Immediately after that brain-grinding shiver, though, I could think of nothing other than Chanukah. I just couldn’t get that Chanukah song to stop running through my head. You know the one - "Who can retell the things that befell us...?" (And now it's running through yours as well; you're welcome). 

It worked for the exercise
 just the same. At least the opening verse. Just substitute Moses and Aaron and Miriam and that cast of hundreds of thousands for all those Maccabees, and you can pretty much retell the story of oppression and slavery and freedom and bloodshed and war and miracles and redemption, there and back again.

That's the part that I get stuck on, the "...and back again." We tell and we tell and we tell, again and again and again. It’s an awesome story, filled with heroes and pyrotechnics that could keep the special effects masters at Industrial Light and Magic on their toes and at their drawing boards for years. Decades. Forever. The stuff of life is present in every word of this story we tell, all the drama and majesty and love and passion and danger and discovery and betrayal and loss.

Tell this story. Tell it to those who ask and those who don't even know there's a story to tell. Tell it as if you were there, part of the original action. Tell it as if you are still there, that we are all still there, living and experiencing it all right now.

Tell it, and tell it again. It is that important.

But here's what I'm thinking these days (as if my statement above were not hint enough): there are far too many "again's" in our story. That is, how many times do we find ourselves in need of heroes and miracles? How many times must we tell the story of soldiers and blood and war and terror?

Yes, and redemption. And yes, God. I love that  redemption and God  are the base of all of the stories we tell.

When, though, do we learn? When do we change? Of course we must tell the story of the Exodus, and the Maccabees, too! Of course we must celebrate our journey from the very narrow places into the wide open space of the wilderness where we meet God! Of course we must tell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.

Let's face it, Moshe takes an entire book of the Torah to retell our story, and we had experienced it all live and in person. Is it any surprise that we are urgent to retell the story of our struggle a few thousand year later? There was war and defilement and miracles galore! There was redemption and rededication. They're were villains and heroes and or ragtag band of guerilla warriors triumphed over the superior forces of the evil empire.

We are out stories, good and bad.

It just seems that we tell this same story, with only slight variations, of oppression, of idols and enslavement and fear and war in every generation since then. That's a lot of generations, a lot of oppression and fear and bloodshed.

And sometimes, in the quiet, away from the flurry of cleaning and preparing and cooking and lighting, sometimes I wish we could tell the story with a different ending.

I'm a dork. I get that. Sometimes, I wish we could tell the story of a world that, because of our wondrous redemption, we needed no heroes, no magic, no soldiers, no war to save us yet again. I wish that we could finally learn that until all of us are free, none of us are. That the story we tell, year after year after day after month, ever and always is the story of everyday miracles, of peace and wholeness and grace...

Chag urim sameach

Friday, December 27, 2019

Chanukah, Sixth Night: Miracles

Miracles are counted on
the wings of angels
who dance on
the sharp end of a pin,
and whose feet come
away bloody.
They are a mighty host
of smoke and mirror
to move the heart
of God.

I searched for a sign,
for the light to grow
and last far longer than it should,
a simple flame grown to
pieces of eight
to illumine the darkness
and the martyrs of battle.

I heard the hosannas,
a miracle of blessing and praise.
There were portents there -
a riot of glory and sacred grace
I lifted my eyes,
watching, waiting.

 I almost missed
my beloved smile.

Chag urim sameach

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Chanukah Day Five: Liberation

Three views of liberation, since three is the number of intention.

First, for this fifth day of Chanukah, Judah the Maccabee, the Hammer of Judea. He took a rag-tag band of guerrilla warriors, and from the dark corners of the land, he and his band of merry men overcame the superior forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fought them and finally won the day.

Huzzah! Liberated - but still, there was much work to do.

The Temple had been overrun with Assyrians, Greeks and idols (oh my!). The altars had been smashed, or worse, defiled. It was unfit for people and for God.  So it was reclaimed, cleaned, made pure and holy again, and finally dedicated before the glorious miracle of the oil: only enough to last a single day, that oil, once lit, lasted for a full eight days, just long enough to get a new supply.

Nes gadol hayah sham - a great miracle happened there.

Huzzah, again. The people rejoiced in their liberation from tyranny and oppression, scrubbed the Temple -- and promptly ushered in one of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in our history. And as long as we're talking about cleaning - let's not forget the dead, the bodies of various Judeans who were not collateral damage, but the victims of internecine warfare. Apparently, we weren't content with fighting just Antiochus' soldiers.

We jumped from the frying pan straight into the fire. Liberation is a double edged sword. It cuts, no matter which side of the blade you're on.

Fly through a couple  thousand years after the Hammer hit home. Humanity has learned a staggering amount during the intervening millennia, whether learned ex nihilo or some refinement of the original, that allowed civilization to flourish. Here's a list, in no particular order (and I'm not even gonna Google this, and I'm gonna miss a gajillion things here) - the stirrup, the printing press, perspective, language, poetry, drama, fireworks, gunpowder, paper, music, smelting, science, astronomy, philosophy, physics. My God! We went from the Bronze Age to the Age of Reason in the blink of an eye, and with every jump, with every advancement, there remained some spots of darkness and decay.

Let's not even list the timeline of weaponry that paralleled that of music and dance, of art and architecture. We went from rocks to sticks to swords and spears, cannon and gunpowder. The holy oil that burned in the Temple could also burn your enemies. 

Let's talk about the Jews, still considered the scourge of the western world. If we weren't thrown out of a country (don't cry for me Spain, I'll hitch a ride with Columbus), we were put into ghettos (medieval Italy) or made chattel of the king (hooray for the Magna Carta)). We were practice dummies for the wonderful knights of the Crusades. We were demonized as money-grubbers and child-killers. 

While the Age of Enlightenment and Napoleon seemed to liberate us from the bondage of the past, there were still a few hills to climb, and work to be done. Liberation is a double-edged sword.

Second view, a little closer to home.

A decade or so go, I got an email from a friend. It had a huge distribution list along with a link to a video. The body of the email read "My God, you must watch this!" Normally, I would delete such an email, wise in the ways of phishers and scams. However, I trusted the friend so I clicked on the link. He was right. It was something I needed to watch. You should, too.

Were we ever liberated? Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them? Evil arose, covering the world with smoke and darkness. Our people were rounded up like animals. Humans were rounded up - Jews and Gypsies, Communists and Catholics. It didn't matter. A king arose with the power to strip people of their humanity, of their personhood, so they could be bound and gagged and murdered, one by one by one, fed into the pits of some hell that we don't believe in. 

And can you imagine? Truly - having been made a slave, having been starved and beaten and worked unto death -- in the very first moments of your liberation, you sing of hope. You sing praises to God. Can you imagine? 

Baruch hashem - blessed is God's name. Nes gadol hayah sham - a great miracle happened there.

We rejoiced in our liberation. There was so much work to be done! We learned from our liberation. "Never again," we cried out. This degradation, this dehumanization will never happen again. We cannot allow it. We learned to be strong, To be vigilant. To be free.

And we dug in our heels, put our backs into building a land that the desert had claimed for its own. And we kept watch and we defended and we sang out "Never again" like a psalm. And we worked to make it so, to make sure we never again felt the boot of the tyrant on our necks.

And we taught the ones who came after - "Never again." And we meant it. And we meant it for the world entire. "Never again." Never let our past become another's present. Let us learn that all of us - Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Sikh, every single one of us - we must all sing the psalm of Never Again, and we must all make sure that our song is true.

And so, the third view of Liberation, for the fifth day of Chanukah, the holiday of light and liberation - liberation is hard, and is a double edged sword, and the work is long.

Sometimes, the hardest lesson of all: failure. From the dead in the Killing Fields of Pol Pot to Bosnia and Herzogovina and Rwanda. From the sex slaves in every city and town the world over to the child laborers that allow us to buy our toys so cheaply. Look at the Women of the Wall. How different are they, really, from the girls stolen by Boko Haram a few years ago?

I could go on, it seems for an infinity - a whole swath of infinity: Flint. Ninth Ward. The African American community. The poor. Women. The differently-abled. Separated families and children in cages. Does it matter, which group of oppressed? How can we rest while there is such pain? 

We are all human. 

Liberation is a double-edged sword. It never means "and then we all lived happily ever after." It means there is work to do, much work. And the work of liberation is difficult. We may never finish the work; neither are we free to desist.

Chag urim sameach

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Night Four, all about Light and Chanukah

I had this awesome essay about Chanukah and light all worked out in my head. Oh, the wondrous tapestry that I wove, in these vibrant jeweled tones and of scarlet and blue. The words and the color and the sheer light of it all all twisted and tangled exactly right, a tightly woven fabric that deftly connected the festival with light.

It was Uh. May. Zing - hanging in free=float perfection there in my head, just waiting to go from thought to pixel to screen.

And then I got my eyes dilated. So much for that mythical, mystical essay.

Talk about a whole new concept of light. What at any other time is serviceable, and sometimes bordering on the dull-please-get-a-higher-watt-bulb now has an intensity that is almost painful. Even at this time of year - mid-December, with its infinite shades of gray, where you count the minutes of light that dwindle every day, and you wait and pray and tell yourself that you just need to make it to December 22 and all will be well again - even this late afternoon half-light is too bright.

Right now, the light positively glows. Right now, the light - the lamp, the sun, the source doesn't matter - the light is different. I am pulled out of my unnoticing, so that I have a chance to see.

That's as far as the metaphor will stretch; my apologies. It's not the dilation that is driving this verbose introspection; the light does hurt, even as it is all glowy and fuzzy. No, it's Chanukah itself that's causing this reflection on light (no pun intended, and so you know, I've practically burned out the delete key, in my efforts to avoid this too-obvious but unintentional pun). 

We go about our days, filled with work and carpools and groceries to be put away and fresh laundry to be folded and dinner to be made. There's homework in there, and correspondence and bills to be overlooked one more week. We run and we do and we go, an ever-moving faster pace that keeps us hurtling forward. There's planning to do and calls to be made. It is never-ending. And don't get me wrong - there's a whole lot of joy in all of this, along with great stretches of nothing much of anything - the "normal" cacophony of emotional noise that flits and flutters through our heads and hearts. It's life, and it drives us along pathways that are at once familiar and comfortable and ignored. 

But for these eight nights, the light is different. For these eight nights, I get to stand next to my son and pause as we light the candles of the menorah. I hear the scratch and sizzle of the match, I see the flickerflame of the candles - one more each night - dance atop graceful pastel tapers. I get to chant a blessing that feels as old as the sun, and that hangs in the air in weightless beauty, as if lingering, too, for just a few seconds more, to watch the light dance and flow. And my son and I, we stand, and we watch and we linger just a fraction of a second longer before the rush of our lives returns.

For these eight blessed nights, I am given the gift of light - a light that shines differently, a light that dances and glows and allows me to pause and share something ancient and holy with my son. 

Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the All, who sanctifies us and commands us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.

Chag urim sameach!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chanukah Day Three - War

I joke with my son: "I'm a pacifist with violent tendencies..."

He laughs. I laugh. And then I sigh - because sadly, it's true.

I remember talking to a gaggle of pre-teens once, telling them about my heroes, Dr. King and Gandhi. They wanted to know why, and I told them about non-violence. I climbed up my metaphorical mountain and sat there, in some divinely serene lotus position, and the vantage point of my lovely, modern, suburban life, and waxed profound on the profound nature of peace. And one of the smart kids (being in 6th or 7th grade, all of whom have a natural tendency is to search out every chink in an adult's armor) raised his hand, and asked in a voice loaded with innocence, "But what about the Holocauset? Would you have fought then? If you could have killed Hitler, would you have?"

They all perked up then. They sensed blood. "I don't know," was my only answer. "I am really grateful I have never been in a position that I have to choose." Even as I said the words, I could feel my insides twist and churn. Would I? In those days, I was single and childless. Now - I have my beloved son. What if the threat were to him? Would I be able to maintain my position of non-violence if the threat were to my child rather than to me - or to my community?

Hannah had an answer. She lived with her seven sons somewhere in Judea. She supported Judah and the Maccabbees, and worked to defeat Antiochus and his army. When the soldiers came, as they did to every Jewish household, to force conversion upon then, Hannah was so steadfast in her beliefs that she was able to watch those soldiers throw each of her seven sons off the roof of their house, one by one, because she would not kneel and pray to a false god.

What a bizarre twist on the Hillel story - he was stopped by a Roman soldier who put a sword to his throat and said "Teach me the Torah while standing on one foot. If you can, I will convert. If you cannot, I will kill you here." Hillel, we are told, thoughtfully stands upon one foot and answers, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Now go study.," And the general, so the story goes, did just that.

Hannah was told, "Bow down and pray or we will throw your sons to their deaths!" And she refused, because she was steeped in her faith. She held firm to her convictions and watched each of her sons die. Did they scream? Did she cry? Did the soldiers think twice, wondering how they could kill an innocent child? Did the soldiers question their inhumane orders? Did Hannah even once question a faith that could revere martyrdom over life? She was so sure that right was on her side; did she forget Moshe's cry: "Choose life!"

We were at war, fighting for our lives, our beliefs, our identity. And war - it changes you. It changes us all. We celebrate our victory over the Assyrians, and praise the bravery and might of Judah and Mattathias and the Maccabbean army.

And still, I am torn, between my love for peace, my belief in non-violence, my absolute conviction that violence only leads to violence, that it never solves anything. And I look around the world, at the wars and the conflicts that are killing us - all of us (because we are an "us," this world of ours, this human race of which we are a part) and I still cannot answer the question "Would you fight? Is there a Just War?" with more than an "I don't know, and thank God that I haven't had to make that choice."

It is Chanukah - a time to celebrate miracles and identity and victory. Perhaps - I hope, I pray - the lesson of this war, of any war, is not to help us answer the question "Would you fight?" but to spur us to redouble our efforts to create a world in which there is no war. Work for peace, for justice. Fight poverty and ignorance and need, not one another.

I am naive, I know. But that is my hope, even so, and I will cling to it, hold fast to it, work tirelessly for it.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Chanukah, Night Two: Power

Long ago (too long for me to comfortably remember exactly how long ago it was), I read Steinbeck's The Short Reign of Pippin the Fourth. I think it was in middle or high school, after we'd read The Pearl. It may have been soon after I discovered Stephen Schwartz's Pippen,  which captiovated and entranced me no end. I read anything that had the name "Pippin" in the title (and even stretched it a bit, reading Great Expectations because the main character's name was "Pip").

What has stayed with me, though, from Steinbeck's brilliant novel - short, riveting and laser-sharp in its satire - was his discussion of power. In Steinbeck's Pippin, France has decided the Republic has failed, and they are looking to reinstate the monarchy. They find one lone direct ancestor to Charlemagne - Pippin, who will be the Fourth of that name. As the modern-day Pippin grapples with the enormity of what confronts him - kingship and history and government and rule - he is reluctant to assume power, fearing (like all wise men) that he will be corrupted by it.

However, he is told by one of his advisers: it is not power that corrupts, nor absolute power that corrupts absolutely. Rather, it is the fear of losing power that corrupts.

What a riveting idea! I think, for myself, how much I am ruled by my fear, how often I base decisions for action (or inaction) on my fear of losing control, giving up my power. And these situations, where it is fear, when I do not sit comfortably in my own skin - in fact, am most likely trying to crawl out of it - these things never end well. They blow up in my face and leave a swath of destruction in a radius of miles. IU spend more time picking up the debris from these ill-fated actions than anyone ever should. 

If I had just done the right thing - even through my fear!

But I don't. I horde my power, clutch at it like Gollum clutches his Ring of Power - only to lose it and then later, teeter at the brink of destruction. I hold my power jealously, refusing to ask for help, denying help that is offered, believing foolishly that help is just another word for weak, or less-than. 

And while I may not have been corrupted by my fear of losing power and control, I have certainly been crippled by it.

Zechariah tells of his dream, and the angel who declares ?Not by might, not by power..." We read this text during Chanukah. Perhaps, we read it - I read it - to remind myself that my "power" is merely illusion to begin with. Or, if not illusion, then certainly immaterial. 

So it is with hope, this Chanukah season, that I remember this lesson beyond the light of the menorah, and carry it into the days and nights ahead of me - not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone...

Perhaps then I will find, not the crippling of corruption, but peace instead.

Chag urim sameach

Sunday, December 22, 2019

First Night - Chanukah and Freedom

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

I know, I know - wrong holiday. Sue me. That particular phrase, that particular concept is woven deep throughout my everything. Really. I am absolutely awed at the thought of such power and wonder and love (yes, love, because if I can anthropomorphize my relationship with God, I can hi certainly apply the same human logic and longing to my God). 

One day we were slaves; the next - free. Ta da.

How does Chanukah fit in with all that? While we swap Moshe and his prophetic gravitas for Judah's guerrilla tactics and military prowess, the story remains hauntingly familiar: under the thumb of a king of great power who tried to break us, to take away our humanity, our spirit, our God, we were redeemed. And we have the miracles to prove it. Seas parted. Oil lasted. Food became a dicey prospect for digestive tracks. Let's face it, fried food is merely a difference in degree, not kind, from matzoh.

And after the redemption part? After the pyrotechnics and miracles and wonder and awe? Clean up on aisle seven...

Sure, we celebrate first. There's dancing and singing and praising galore!. I mean, really: we were redeemed! That is big - HUGE - awesome stuff! Talk about a shehecheiyanu moment! Literally: thank you God, for bringing us to this season of joy. But what happens when that first blush of celebration is over? What happens when the music stops?

As I see it - that's when the work of freedom really begins. Freedom is an action, not an event. It was never a gift; not for Moses and the people fleeing the narrow places. Not for Judah and the Maccabees and the other Judeans. There was a lot to attend to - nation building and temple-cleaning. Learning just what it meant to be God's people. This wasn't freedom from, or even freedom to. This was stay-in-the-game-freedom and do the work of being free. Because when you don't do that work, when you don't pay attention to the being free and being bound by that freedom, well, suddenly you lose it. Suddenly, you're under a different thumb of a different king that's really just the same thumb of the same king, over and over again, ad infinitum.

And so tonight, on this first night of Chanukah, we gather to celebrate and find joy and sing praise (and eat latkes and spin dreidls and all that other family stuff of Chanukah-ing) - and we are reminded (I am reminded) that the work of freedom is part of the deal. Freedom binds me, to God, to you, to family, to the world, and so I find a purpose in it, and a fierce joy there. And with all that - the freedom and the binding and the joy -  I celebrate the gift and grace of freedom.

Chag urim sameach