Monthly Archives: November 2013

Hannukah, Maccabees, Soviet Jewry, Freedom. We remember.

On the eve of Hanukkah thoughts turn to the meaning we glean from the ritual and what we remember, particularly the cause of freedom and what is necessary to achieve it.  As we recall the Maccabees, I think of the words of acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Meade who once said, “Never Doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Many of us remember to that momentous time on December 6, 1987 when a quarter of a million people came together on the National Mall to protest during Premier Mikhael Gorbachev’s visit to Washington demanding that he “let my people go,” and grant the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel.  But before 250,000 people could gather and speak with one voice, people needed to galvanize them.  In fact it was on May 1, 1964, outside the Russian Legation to the United Nations in Manhattan, that the first mass public rally to support Soviet Jewry was held.  This was the original committed core that started the process, and as they say, the rest is history.  Those Soviet Jews that wanted to were eventually granted the right to make aliyah and go to live as Jews in the Land of Israel.

We celebrate those brave souls who risked their personal safety to stand for the ideal of freedom that is embodied in Judaism.  We rightfully pay tribute to those who stood up and spoke to power there knowing free speech did not exist in that place, that such speech came at a great price.   Those of us here in the United States were encouraged and energized by their voices and we joined ours to theirs.  The cry for freedom grew louder and louder until it could no longer be ignored.  The doors opened and the great exodus of the twentieth century began; the Jews of the Soviet Union came home.

We saw the power of the word defeat the mighty.  We can and should celebrate this modern miracle.  But the past is only prologue.  For not all the Jews left.  What of those that remained behind?  They could have been forgotten as our attention focused on the new Olim and we reveled in our accomplishment.  But that small committed group continues to make its voice heard and the Jews of the Former Soviet Union have also entered into a new era.

The Jews of the FSU are actively reconnecting with their Judaism that others had tried to take away two generations ago.  With the help of outside groups such as the JDC there is a Jewish revival happening.  It is not the whispers of Jews practicing their faith behind closed doors, but Jews being and doing Jewish in the open.  To visit major urban centers in the FSU, Synagogues that had been shuttered or once repurposed as things like warehouses are now open for business as places of worship.  We saw with amazement not only synagogues but also day schools  and Jewish Community Centers.    And even more remarkable, not only Chabad is there, but so are other streams of Judaism. An organic Judaism is taking hold as Jews rediscover and reconnect to their past, themselves, and their future.

The work is far from over.  Rabbi Tarfon tells us in Pirkei Avot that “You are not duty bound to finish  the work, but neither can you desist from it.”  Judaism’s rise in the FSU, from near extinction to flourishing, is nascent.  It remains our sacred obligation to use our power and influence to nurture Jews around the world seeking to connect with our sacred wisdom.  We are there to open the doors and welcome our brothers and sisters to join Klal Yisrael.  Our true tribute to those who have done so much for the cause of freedom is to continue the work that they started and help the next generation of Jews.

How special must it be to be really special? Thoughts on Thanksgivukah.

Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide this year.  You may have already heard that.  You may also have heard that according to the people who calculate such things, this event will happen again in 70,000 years, give or take.  So for us it is safe to say Thanksgivukah is a once in a lifetime event.  It is the first time the two holidays occur at the same time and, as much as I love my country, I am not sure if it will be around 700 centuries years from now for the next one.  Thanksgivukah is a big deal if only because it likely will happen only this one time.  Let us celebrate!

 So break out the sweet potato latkes and the turkey menorahs with candles for tail feathers.  I am sure that there are all kinds of tie-ins, dreidels and chocolate gelt meeting funny looking black hats (maybe no change there) along side pumpkin pie and turkey with dressing.  And on the more serious side, there are the opportunities to learn and make meaningful connection; how do we as moderns understand the two holidays?  How do we tell the intertwined story?  How do we relate to the people both Native American and Pilgrim and their respective narratives from a Jewish point of view?  What a special celebration this will be.

 The thing of it is, each day of our lives is truly just like Thanksgivukah; a unique moment that is ours for as long as it lasts, and once gone, only a memory never to be relived but possibly recaptured as myth and retold because it was special.  What if we greeted each day with such a profound sense of awe and anticipation?  How much better might life be if we lived each day to its fullest?

I will not let you go until you have blessed me.

In the dark solitude of night Jacob wrestles with an unidentified man until dawn, but would not let him go, even after he appears to vanquish his opponent. Although the text says it was a man, the figure is mysterious and might have been an angel of God or possibly a demon from Jacob’s psyche.

 This remarkable story speaks to how we might make something good come from the troublesome or even the tragic event; for Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing.  Instead of fleeing, as Jacob has in the past, Jacob only grapples with it. Acknowledging this event is now a part of him, Jacob holds on.  Jacob emerges from the scuffle physically injured, forever changed. But he still insists that something good comes of the encounter a blessing.

 So many of us confront tragedy in our lives.  And despite the pain and the suffering tragedy causes, people often turn it in order to make something good as a result.  For example, the founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, were able to take the unspeakable horror of losing their children and create a crusade to save the children of others. Veronique Pozner, recently named as one of the Forward 50, lost her 6-year-old son Noah in Newtown and transformed her personal tragedy and grief into a rallying cry for gun control legislation in Connecticut.

 We are forever changed as a result of the harsh tests in our lives.  For Jacob, his hip was damaged and his name changed to always reflect that the event had irrevocably altered him.  Nothing will bring the lost children back to their mothers. Noah will never return to Veronique, but she celebrates his brief life, by working to create a better world.  May we all find the strength to do so.

~Thoughts on Vayishlach

The need for connection runs deep

Toledot, last week’s Torah portion, holds one of the most poignant moments in the entire Tanakh for me.  The story of Esau before his father is heart wrenching.  We know that Esau sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew and that Jacob completed the deed by deceiving his father into giving him the blessing.  But I cannot help but feel a profound empathy for Esau’s anguish.

 There Esau stands, this strong brute of a man, sobbing before his father beseeching him: Is there nothing left for me?  Can I not also have your blessing?  This is more than a demand for his portion of the family wealth.  This is the yearning human need to belong.  There is the deep heartfelt desire to believe that there is love enough in his father’s heart to share a blessing, a hope an aspiration for something that is Esau’s inheritance from his father. The best Isaac could muster was that Esau would be free of his brother’s dominance only when Esau moved away.  And so an estrangement began so brutal in its nature, that Jacob fled and when the brothers next meet twenty years later, Jacob still fears for his life.

 When our father died, my brother and sister and I respectfully shared the material possessions that remained.  My brother took a desk that he always loved and I took the vanity mirror that sat on my dad’s dresser since he was a boy.  But I think the blessing that my father left my brother was his knowledge that he was dad’s primary caregiver and their bond grew very strong and close.  For me it was the knowledge that this new path I embarked upon into the rabbinate was a source of pride and admiration.  These are the truly valuable legacies that will remain with us.

 May we always find that our inner wellspring of love and compassion is never exhausted.  May we always have something to give to those seeking our love and support, even when it is challenging.  May we learn from Isaac that there is a better and more empathetic way to embrace another.