The well hyped convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah is now history. We'll never see the two holidays come together in this way again. What did we learn? Here are some thoughts:
1) It usually takes me a week to work off the weight I gain over Thanksgiving and a week or two to work off the latkes and sour cream of Chanukah. I am not making any predictions about how long I'll be recovering from a combined orgy of sweet potatoes, sufganiyot, cranberry sauce and chocolate gelt. This could take a while.
2) For all the many words that have been written by myself and others about the things that Thanksgiving and Chanukah have in common, one thing emerges as the central truth: Family brings us together. It's not turkey, it's not the latkes, it's not the candles, and it's not watching football that people love about these two holidays. Chanukah and Thanksgiving each hold a place in our hearts because they are holidays that bring us together with family near and far.
3) Like most American Jews, my extended family includes Jews and non-Jews. We all get together every year for a Thanksgiving celebration that is warm and joyful, but without much ritual or overt spirituality. I think that all of us — Jews and non-Jews — found something meaningful in lighting the Chanukah menorah together as a moment of intentional reflection on our blessings and the miracles in our lives. Even if we never celebrate Chanukah at Thanksgiving again, I hope our experience this year will bring greater spirituality for all of us to our Thanksgiving gatherings in the future.
4) In the end, the hype did not really matter. All of those creative recipes for pumpkin challah, sweet potato latkes, and sufganiyot filled with cranberry sauce, did not transform either holiday into something new. The turkey menorahs were cute, but they will just join the many Chanukah menorahs already on the shelf that our kids made in Sunday school or that we got as wedding gifts from forgotten relatives. "Thanksgivukkah" was the Jewish Y2K — a calendrical oddity that will soon be forgotten.
5) There are four candles (plus the shamash) burning on my menorah right now, and they look lovely. In past years, we never let the gaudy glare of Christmas diminish their glow. This year, Black Friday didn't distract us, either. These lights are meant for gazing upon, remembering and praising the Source of our blessings. That is the same this year as it is every year. We will have four more nights of it this week. Make the most of them!
Other Posts on This Topic:Chanukah ChaikuThe Audacity of the Miracle
I ran this morning in the Concord Turkey Trot
. I can't brag about my time
, but my cousin Bonnie had the best time for a woman over forty. (Yay, Bonnie!!).
I had a lot of fun running. This was my third time participating in this annual Thanksgiving tradition. It was my first time, though, running with a Chanukah menorah hat on my head. Over the past two years, I had seen plenty of people running the race with turkey hats and other Thanksgiving-themed costumes. I thought, this year, it is Chanukah's turn.
The hat got a lot of comments. I heard plenty of "Happy Chanukah!" "Great hat!" and "Where'd you get that?" (The true and ironic answer to that question is here
It would be a stretch to say that running through the streets of a New England town with a funny hat on my head is a holy act. I will say though, that it felt like I was doing a small part to fulfill the central mitzvah of Chanukah. From a traditional perspective, the reason for lighting a Chanukah menorah is pirsum ha-nes
, to "make known the miracle" (B. Shabbat 21a-24a). This is why a lit Chanukah menorah ideally should be placed in a window where it can be seen by the public. For each person who smiled at my silly hat, I felt that I was helping to remind people of Chanukah, a minor holiday that celebrates God's power to change a defeat into a victory, darkness into light, and despair into hope.
Why was publicizing the miracle of Chanukah so important to the ancient rabbis? In large measure, it was because they recognized that they were living at a time when Judaism was in fierce competition with other beliefs and philosophies. In ancient Babylon and the ancient land of Israel, Jews were in competition with Christians who taught that the holiness of the Temple had been broken and replaced. Gnosticism rejected the idea of a single creator God who is the only deity. The rabbis used the public display of lit menorahs at the darkest time of year as a powerful form of advertising for the unique God who brought a miracle to affirm the Temple's holiness and who ruled the universe alone.
We also are living in a time of competition for the hearts and minds of today's Jews, although the terms of the competition have changed. For Jews who believe that religion is nothing more than a grandiose superstition, or who believe that the synagogue is a place of stuffy and meaningless rituals, we have a lot of public relations work to do. "Making known the miracle" today may mean presenting an image of Judaism that is meaningful, spiritual, fun and joyful. We need to publicize a Judaism that helps people grapple with the most difficult challenges of their lives and that helps them discover their own greatest happiness and fulfillment in life.
Does wearing a silly hat help in that publicity campaign? Maybe a little. In any case, it is a gentle reminder that there are plenty of folks in the world today who are proud to be Jews, who think that Judaism is far from a stuffy and meaningless aspect of their identity. It is a way of making known that being Jewish, and loving Judaism, feels great.Other Posts on This Topic:The Last MiracleHow Does a Joyful Jew Respond to "Merry Christmas"?
You must know by now that this year, for only the second time ever, the first day of Chanukah will fall on the American holiday of Thanksgiving. You also may have heard that this will not happen again for tens of thousands of years. (More on that misconception below).
I am resisting the temptation to merge these two holidays into a single hybrid with a name that is a registered trademark. Chanukah and Thanksgiving are separate holidays, but they do have some things to teach each other.
Chanukah commemorates a miracle. In the second century BCE, the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid Empire to regain Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. At the end of the war, they needed to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel, which included rekindling the great seven-branched Temple Menorah. However, they found only a single cruse of sanctified oil to light the Menorah — enough to burn for only a single day. Yet, when the Maccabees lit the Menorah, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to press new oil under the supervision of the Priests.
There is a question, then, about the first day of the holiday. What was the miracle of the first day? It hardly counts as a miracle if a cruse of oil, expected to burn for one day, burns for one day. Right? Why do we light a candle on the first day of Chanukah to praise a miracle that occurred on that day? What miracle?
Perhaps the miracle is that the Maccabees lit then Menorah at all. They certainly could have waited until they had more oil. But they did not. What insight caused the Maccabees to light the Menorah, even though they knew that it would take an act of God to sustain it?
Here's a way to think of it. The Maccabees spent years fighting the Seleucid Empire. They had pitted sword against sword and suffered terrible losses. When they won, they had every reason to believe that their victory was the result of their own cunning, bravery and personal sacrifice. Yet, the Maccabees recognized that the victory belonged to God, not to themselves.
This is what gave the Maccabees the confidence to light the Menorah with only a day's worth of oil. They knew that the rededication of the Temple was won "Not by might and not by power but by [God's] spirit" (Zechariah 4:6). They never lost awareness that it was God who had sustained them through the war and that God would continue to sustain them.
And this, too, is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the most spiritual and universal of all American holidays. It is a day to recognize that there is something beyond ourselves that we must thank. On this day, we remember that it is not just by our own sweat and effort that we have received the bounty and riches that we enjoy in life. We give thanks on Thanksgiving for the very same reason the Maccabees lit the Menorah. We recognize that we are blessed by something beyond ourselves.
We do have some good reason to celebrate these two holidays together, if only as a once-in-a-lifetime event. And, now, it appears, for the very last time ever.
Since 1941, the United States has fixed Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, making this year's observance, on November 28, the latest possible date for the holiday. This year, the first day of Chanukah falls on its earliest
possible date on the Gregorian calendar, November 28. However, this is the last century in which Chanukah can land as early as November 28.
The Hebrew calendar is slightly out of skew with the Gregorian calendar. With the passage of time, Hebrew dates move forward on the Gregorian calendar by an average of three-quarters of a day per century. By the end of the 21st century, this shift will make November 29 the earliest possible Gregorian date on which Chanukah can land. This year will be the last time the holidays will ever converge.
You may have heard some people say that the holidays will come back together in tens of thousands of years, after the inconsistency of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars pushes Chanukah deeper into winter, through the spring, across the summer, and back into late autumn. But that can never happen.
The Torah requires that the Jewish holidays stay in their proper seasons. In particular, Passover must be celebrated in the spring (according to Deuteronomy 16:1). Long before Chanukah migrates across the seasons, the Hebrew calendar will have to be revised to keep Passover in the spring. When that happens, Chanukah will be locked in place, never to find itself coinciding with Thanksgiving again.
So, enjoy the convergence now and for the last time ever. Make the first day of Chanukah this year a unique opportunity to remember that the miracle of the first day is the miracle of saying, "Thank you," to a Source beyond us all.
Happy Chanukah! Happy Thanksgiving!Other Posts on This Topic:Giving ThanksThe Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah
This is the sermon I am delivering tonight at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, like millions of other people, I first heard the news of two airplanes flying into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. My wife and I huddled around the television set, with our not-quite-three-year-old child. We stayed there for much of the rest of the day, watching the horrifying images, worrying about the people we knew in New York City. Were they okay? How had they been affected?
As I look around this room, I know that everyone here remembers that day and knows exactly where they were when those towers fell down. Where were you that day? What did you do, and how did you feel on that day?
Just before noon on January 28, 1986, I was rehearsing a play in the Theater Arts building at Oberlin College. I heard from a friend that there had been an accident. I watched on a small television in the department office to see images of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding just a minute after launch. I tried to imagine the experience of the astronauts trapped in the explosion. When that became too painful, I stopped and just cried.
As I look around this room, I know that most of the people here remember that day and knows where they were when the Challenger exploded. Where were you? What did you do, and how did you feel?
On the morning of November 22, 1963, my mother and grandmother took me with them on a trip to a dress shop in Manhattan. While they were in a changing room, my mother heard commotion outside and knew something was wrong. She heard a woman say that the President had been shot. Immediately, my mother, grandmother and I went back to the apartment and spent the next three days watching the news, sobbing along with the rest of the country.
I have no memory of that day, exactly fifty years ago today. As I look around this room, though, I know that many of you do remember that day and know where you were when President Kennedy was shot. Where were you? What did you do, and how did you feel?
Each of these moments from the past half century was a moment of trauma — for our country and for the individuals who experienced them. Our world was turned upside down and shattered. At some level, a feeling of security that we had grown used to was taken away from us — the safety of our nation from attack within its borders, the pride we felt in our nation’s space program and our ability to reach out into space, the reassuring smile of a handsome young president whose smile sang of Camelot. All of that can be taken away in an instant leaving us feeling bereft, disoriented, and pained to imagine how the world will ever feel the same again.
Such moments can destroy us. They can make us sink into despair and withdrawal. However, they also can be moments of transformation that allow us to become better than we thought we could be.
Just after 9/11, it seemed like we would never be the same again. Some people felt that, if there are people in the world who hate us so much, we should not waste our time engaging them in any way. We should just let our bombs blow them out of existence. Some people said that. Some still do. But, as a society, we have decided that we can do better. The painful lesson of 9/11 has been that we must not put our heads in the sand and use our military strength as a substitute for thoughtful and open-eyed engagement. We must seek ways to create peace, not just war.
There was a moment after the Challenger disaster in which we did slip into despair. We grounded our space program for 32 months of investigation, recrimination and sorrow. Some said that the price for exploring space was just too high, both in dollars and in lives. Some said we should stick to more practical and earthbound pursuits. Some still do. But, as a nation, we have decided that we can do better. This past Monday, I stood in my driveway to watch the Maven spacecraft launch from the John F. Kennedy Space Center to explore the martian atmosphere. NASA now projects that manned flights to the International Space Station from U.S. soil will begin again in 2017. We have not stopped dreaming of the stars.
The Kennedy assassination was, in some ways the most traumatic experience of all during my lifetime. Adlai Stevenson said presciently at the time that, “All of us..... will bear the grief of his death until the day of ours.”
The Kennedy assassination, too, might have been a moment in which America could have given up on its dreams. President Kennedy had stirred the country to hopes of Camelot and a better society. After his murder, it would have been easy to allow the spirit that Kennedy represented to be crushed.
In some ways, it was. After the assassination, we became a bit embarrassed by the naivety of our talk of building a “great society.” Our politics became more crude and cynical. We began talking about foreign and domestic policies that were “realistic” and that “satisfied our narrow interests,” instead of talking about our ideals and reaching for our highest aspirations. A decade after Kennedy’s death, we thought we had hit the bottom when Watergate taught us just how low the politics of cynicism could take us.
However, another part of the truth of the past half century is that we have made some of our greatest progress through our determination not to let Kennedy’s murder also become the death of the dream he embodied. Lyndon Johnson got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, largely as a tribute to President Kennedy. We did put a man on the moon in 1969, just as President Kennedy told us we should. President Reagan’s declaration, “Mr. Gorbochov, tear down this wall,” contains an unmistakable echo of Kennedy’s call, “Ich bin ein Berliner
.” And the very idea of electing the first African-American president has its roots in Kennedy’s determination to end legal barriers faced by Black Americans, once and for all.
When painful, disorienting, gut-wrenching tragedies come into the life of our nation, or into our own personal lives, there is always the temptation to withdraw and despair. Inevitably, tragic losses do affect us and they do scar us in ways that are difficult to understand until long after the fact. But they are also a moment to reassess ourselves and to rededicate ourselves to the things we believe in.
This week marks another American anniversary. One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and gave one of the most memorable speeches in U.S. history. He said, “It is for us the living … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work…” Lincoln spoke, “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln speech came at another moment of trauma, standing upon land that was still blood-stained from a horrifying battle. He used the occasion as a moment — not of despair — but of transformation.
He said that this nation was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Was that actually true in 1776? Historians are doubtful. Few of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had any thought that the United States would be a nation that regarded equality
as one of its founding principles. All of them were men. Most of them were aristocrats. Many of them were slave owners. Yet, 87 years after the founding of this nation, Lincoln created a new American identity built on the ideal of equality for all.
Tragedy and trauma scar us. They can make us doubt ourselves. They can make us wonder whether our dreams were too lofty or too unrealistic. Sometimes — as we have seen in recent history — they make us scale back our expectations. But the higher call, as Lincoln wrote 150 years ago, is to allow tragedy to become the foil against which we resolve to transform ourselves for the better.
That is also the story of Joseph in this week’s Torah portion. Joseph, the favorite son who was thrown into the pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers never once in the story fell into despair. Even after circumstances placed him in the dungeon, he looked for ways to transform his situation up from the depths, all the way to the heights.
Today marks a dark day in the history of our country. It is one that tests our resolve and makes us wonder whether we have tried to do too much and whether our dreams have been too lofty. If you have been around long enough to remember the last fifty years, you can also be optimistic enough to hope for the best in the next fifty. If your years, like mine, fall short of remembering fifty years, let your gaze be extended even further forward.
We can overcome all kinds of sorrow in our private lives and in the life of our nation. We can be better — as individuals and as a society — than our regrets and our pain would ever allow. We can climb higher and aspire to greater achievements when we release ourselves from self-doubt and fear and allow ourselves to remain committed to the values of peace, discovery and hope.
Shabbat shalom.Other Posts on This Topic:The Pit, the Water, the Scorpion, and Being a Good PersonVayigash: Finding a Way Out of the PitHope after Despair
Stability is one of life's pleasant misconceptions. Our minds are endlessly capable of convincing us that we live in an unchanging world. We comfort ourselves with routines that lead us to believe that the world is constant from day to day.
It is, of course, all a grand illusion. Nothing stays the same. The universe is in constant motion around us, and our lives are all in a perpetual state of flux. Some of it is growth, some of it decay, and some is just random movement and variation. We are ever changing.
Most of the time, we don't notice. It is only in those times of upheaval that we open our eyes, look around, and ask, "What happened? When did everything change?"
Jacob had such a moment of realization. It turned his understanding of himself and of his world upside-down.
From before his birth, Jacob had been engaged in a power struggle with his twin brother, Esau. The boys wrestled in Rebecca's belly, so much so that she cried out in pain, "If so, why do I exist?" (Genesis 25:22). Striving with Esau was just part of what defined Jacob's identity — it was part of his stable understanding of himself. That is who he was when he earned the name Jacob, which means "heel," by grasping onto Esau's heel when they were born, trying to beat his brother to be first out of the womb. It was who he was when he got Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew. This also was Jacob when he tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. However, Jacob had not noticed over the years that his brother was reaching a breaking point. It was only when Jacob finally took from Esau the only thing he had left that marked him as the favorite son that Jacob's world turned upside-down. Enraged, Esau threatened to kill Jacob, and the younger brother had to run away to save his life. He had not seen it coming.
This week's Torah portion (Vayeitzei
) begins with the words: "Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran" (Genesis 28:10). Jacob was running to
escape his past, trying to get away from what had seemed a stable reality. He had always been at odds with Esau, but now he noticed what a
volatile situation he had created for himself. Suddenly, his life was changed and would never be the same again. On the road, he spent the night on a hilltop and fell asleep using a rock as a pillow. Jacob had a dream that night in which he had a vision of a world that is constantly changing. Angels stood at the top of a ladder and at its foot. He saw the angels "going up and coming down" (Genesis 28:12). It was an image of the universe as it truly is — constantly in motion, constantly changing, always in flux, with God standing at the top of the perpetual motion ladder.Jacob awoke and realized the sanctity of his new insight. When he resumed his journey, he was no longer just running away from his brother, he also was heading toward his next destination. The text tells us, "Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners" (Genesis 29:1). He noticed that, in life, every departure is also an arrival. We are all creatures in motion, always departing from the past as we head to the future, always becoming something different than we were a moment before. That has been a theme in my life in the past few weeks. As some readers of this blog know, I announced to Temple Beit HaYam last month that I will be leaving the congregation at the end of June. I am currently in a process of seeking a new spiritual home and a new path to walk in life. The process has put me on a hilltop from which I am taking a big-picture view of my life, noticing the constant motion, feeling the flow of the angels that interrupt the useful illusion of life's stability.
I find myself, once again, saying goodbye and hello simultaneously. I am keenly aware of motion away and motion toward. My eyes are newly open to the ways in which my life is turned upside-down. It is hard, and sometimes sad, to begin the process of leaving a place that has meant so much to me. It is exciting and anxiety provoking to encounter new possibilities, to explore possible futures, and to imagine the next step of the journey. Like Jacob, I am looking back over my shoulder at what I leave behind, looking forward to what is to come, and noticing God's presence standing over it all.I also am reminded that this is the nature of life. We always are changing, growing, becoming. Those angels are always marching up and down the ladder. Life is a series of many new births and many small deaths. Growth and decay. Evolution and flow. This is who we are. I am grateful for the chance to notice, and for the way that life
intermittently reveals its wonders.
Other Posts on This Topic:Ten Thoughts About Being a Congregational RabbiMas'ei: The Torah of NowAngels
"The Hospitality of Abraham" 6th century mosaic, San Vitale, Italy
This is the sermon I am giving tonight at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida.
How do you treat a perfect stranger? When someone you don’t know and have never met comes walking up to your door, how do you treat them? Do you approach them with polite but visible suspicion and say, “Yes? How can I help you? What is your business here?” Or, do you put on a cheerful smile and a warm demeanor — at least, for the moment — until you find out what they want?
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera
, Abraham went way beyond that approach in welcoming three men who came walking by his tent. When he saw them, Abraham begged them not to pass by until they had come into his home to share his hospitality. He called them “my lords,” and fetched water to wash their feet and to sooth their throats from their journey through the desert. He asked Sarah, his wife, to prepare food for them. Nothing was spared to make the strangers comfortable, even though Abraham did not even know their names.
As it turns out in the story, it was a good thing that Abraham treated them this way. The men were really angels sent from God with a message for Abraham about how his wife, the barren Sarah, would give birth to a child. But Abraham didn’t need to know that they were angels to treat them with the highest level of hospitality. He just treated them the same way he treated everyone — with genuine caring, compassion and decency.
Hospitality is an ancient Jewish value and it is a reflection of one of our most fundamental Jewish ideals. We are the people who taught the world that all human beings are created in the image of God. How, then, could we possibly turn away another human being, created in God's image, who came walking by our door? What could be so important to us that it would outweigh the need to show kindness and love to another person who is, like us, a reflection of the Divine?
So, think about it. What did you do the last time you encountered a stranger? Did you make that person feel welcome? Did you genuinely try to do everything you could to assure that person’s comfort? Did you see them as you might see yourself — a miracle of life and awareness in a world filled with wonders?
I don’t need to tell you that this is not the way that most people treat each other today. Maybe, it was never
the way most people treated each other. However, it remains an ideal for us to keep in mind when we make our own choices about how to get along with the people we encounter in life. That is because — beyond being a polite or courteous way to behave — it is a way of living that makes life better for everyone. When we treat others with dignity and respect, we greatly increase the chances that we will be treated the same way. When we aim to create peace between people, our own lives are likely to become more peaceful.
Only, that’s not the way people usually see things in our society. We tend to be skeptical about calls for greater kindness and we are quick to label them as naïve or Pollyannaish. When we think about peace — in the Middle East, for example — we tend to think that resolution of conflict is more likely to come about if we are strong and able to intimidate than it is if we are kind and able to genuinely care about others. What a shame. Again, think about it. When has this been true in your own life? When have you been able to make a situation more genuinely peaceful because of your ability to intimidate or overpower others? When was the last time you found that happiness is achieved by not
being kind to the people in your life?
So, forget about the Middle East when we ask the question, “Is peace possible?” Think instead about more immediate situations you face. When the technical support representative puts you on hold for a half hour, or when the teenager working the supermarket register miscalculates your change, think about creating some peace in your life in those moments
. Think about the way that Abraham saw the image of God in the face of every stranger who walked by his door. Do you think you'll make yourself a sucker when you treat a person kindly in those situations? Or, rather, do you really do yourself a greater favor by not giving in to the temptation to get angry, upset and self-righteous?
Over the last two weeks, we saw the United States Congress cost the U.S. economy an estimated $24 billion just by refusing to treat each other with basic decency. Five hundred and thirty-five Senators and Representatives acted like a classroom of eight-year-olds who refused to play nicely with each other if they couldn’t get their own way. You may think, “Well, that’s just politics and politics is played a lot tougher than second grade.” But I don’t think so. I think it’s exactly the same.
Our leaders misbehave in this way as a reflection of a society that often forgets that genuine kindness to others is often the best way to serve your own interests. Aggressive, angry, self-righteous behavior may get the adrenaline pumping in our system, but it doesn't usually result in a better outcome for ourselves or the people around us.
When we don’t teach our children that it is more important to be kind than it is to get our way, we are not preparing them for success. We are preparing them for a life of bitterness and anger that gets worse every time they choose to treat another person harshly. It sets them up for failure every time they get put on hold for too long, when they get the wrong change, or when they can’t stop pouting until they get their way. We teach our children to be successful in life when we teach them to genuinely get along with others, and to practice sincere patience and forgiveness. We teach them to have happier lives when we encourage them to see each stranger as a being created in the image of God.
Three strangers came walking by Abraham’s tent, and he instantly treated them as the messengers from heaven that they truly were. It is not that Abraham had some weird, saintly ability to know the difference between angels and mortal men. It was much more simple than that. He had the insight to recognize that everyone you meet, every day, has a message for you that comes straight from God. However, you will only hear the message, and you will only be touched by miracles in life, if you are willing to see how the face of each stranger you meet reveals a little bit of God’s presence. When you do, you will know real happiness and you will know real peace.
Shabbat shalom.Other Posts on This Topic:Behar: Do Not Wrong One AnotherWelcome to the Silly Season
The title of this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha
, comes from God's two-word command to Abram. "Lech lecha
" is variously translated as "Get thee out," "You shall surely go," or "Go forth." The opening verse of the portion is God's command to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1, JPS translation).
The uncertainty of translating the expression, Lech lecha,
comes from the odd syntax in the Hebrew. Lech
is simply the imperative form (masculine singular, if you're keeping score) of the verb that means "to go." Lech
The second word, lecha
, is a bit more tricky. It appears to be a form of the preposition that means "to," "toward," "for," or "belongs to." The preposition has a suffix that makes it masculine, second person singular.
If you want to skip the grammar lesson, let's say that lecha
means something like "to you" or "for you." But that is just the beginning of understanding the phrase.
Most biblical scholars say that adding lecha
serves to make the verb more intense. Think of it as God saying, "Get going, Abram! I'm talking to you
!" We have an idiom that is something like this in English when a person says, "Get yourself going."
We also notice, though, that lecha
sounds a lot like lech
. In fact, in Hebrew without the vowel symbols, the two words are spelled identically — "לך לך" — even though they are pronounced differently and are grammatically unrelated. The phrase, lech lecha
, has more than a little poetry to it. It begs to be interpreted and to be a source of hidden meanings.
The great medieval commentator Rashi understood lech lechah
in absolutely literal terms. He read it as, "Go for you." Rashi wrote that the command means, "Go for your own enjoyment and for your own good." God is telling Abram that this is not just a command to leave home, it is an invitation to adventure, wonder and self-discovery.Lech lecha
is the command that stands at the beginning of Jewish identity. It is the two-word phrase that God uses to set Abram onto the journey toward becoming Abraham and the foundation of God's covenant with the Jewish people. If Rashi is right, it is a journey that does not serve God's purposes alone. It is a journey that serves Abram's own interests, his own enjoyment, and his own good.
We might recommend lech lecha
as the most basic command of Torah, superior even to "You shall love Adonai your God," and, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Lech lecha
is the command not to get stuck in life, to move forward, to try new things, to be a better person than you thought you could be — and to do it knowing that it is for your own benefit and enjoyment.
Abram became a Jew in the moment when he obeyed the command to leave behind the pain of the past, to break away from the familiar, and to embrace an unknown future with an unknown destination. That is the secret of life. None of us knows where life is taking us. Life is richer, more meaningful and more fulfilling when we embrace the unknown and resist the tendency to play it safe, to lay low, or to settle. The journey is what matters. Enjoy it.
Don't wait for life. Don't miss out on the pleasure of reaching higher. Keep alive with adventure, even when life knocks you around. Pick yourself up. Get yourself going.Other Posts on This Topic:
Lech Lecha: Facing our Fears, Being OurselvesLech Lecha: Be Perfect!
Let me start by saying what should be obvious: The U.S. government is shut down right now because of people who are determined to get their way — no matter what — even if it causes terrible harm to everyone. Judaism has something to say about situations like this. The Talmud has a legend about it (B. Bava Metzia 59a-59b).
The story is about Rabbi Eliezer, who knew that he was right and that everyone else was wrong. He knew that the "Oven of Achnai" was a special cooking vessel that would always be kosher, no matter what. The other rabbis disagreed and said the opposite. The Oven of Achnai, according to them, was actually unclean and food cooked in it would never be kosher. They couldn't both be right.
Rabbi Eliezer was a genius of Jewish law, and he knew it. He was said to have tremendous powers because of his deep knowledge of God. He pulled out every possible proof to show that his oven was ritually clean. He caused rivers to run backwards, trees to walk, and buildings to nearly collapse. But the other rabbis still refused to accept his ruling. Eliezer, so certain that he was right, would not submit to the rule of the majority. In the end, it didn't matter. He was simply outvoted.
Having defeated Rabbi Eliezer, and still angry about his arrogant defiance, the other rabbis took a further step. In his absence, they ruled that everything
that Rabbi Eliezer had ever
ruled to be ritually clean would now be considered ritually un
clean. They even expelled him from the Sanhedrin, the council of sages.
Only one man, Rabbi Akiva, understood the danger of insulting Rabbi Eliezer in this way. Akiva knew that Rabbi Eliezer was such a powerful master of Torah that insulting him could bring about a plague that would destroy the world. He went to visit Rabbi Eliezer to tell him what had been done. Akiva broke the news as gently as he could. He even tried to make it sound like the rest of the rabbis had resigned, rather than admit that they had tossed him out. Because of Rabbi Akiva's compassionate approach, the plague was limited. Only a third of the world's olive, wheat and barley crops were destroyed.
When leaders become so certain that they are right, and so determined not to allow others to succeed, bad things can happen. When beating your opponent into the ground becomes more important to you than protecting what is good for all, disaster is not far behind.
Rabbi Eliezer was so obsessed in his determination to be proven right that he lost sight of the greater good. He refused to honor majority rule and, worse, he put his ego above everything else. Eliezer's arrogance, in the end, was the cause of his own downfall and the cause of suffering for many others.
The other rabbis of the Sanhedrin were not much better. They fell victim to their desire for revenge. They forgot to be humble in victory, and they forgot how much their incivility could come back to haunt them.
Today in Washington, the government of the most powerful country in the world has been brought to its knees by people who, like Rabbi Eliezer, refuse to see beyond their own egos and agendas. They refuse to let the rule of law prevail. Shame on them. The situation will only get worse, though, if today's stubbornness next turns into angry finger-pointing with calls for revenge. We could be at the beginning, not the end, of a self-fulfilling cycle of recrimination and vengeance. It could get a lot uglier quickly if no one is willing to stop the cycle by backing away from anger and self-righteous certainty.
I'm not a politician and I don't claim to have expertise on healthcare policy, debt limits, or the rules of parliamentary procedure. But I do know something about the human heart, and so did the rabbis of the Talmud. If the fight over defunding Obamacare doesn't end soon, and if members of Congress continue to put more energy into embarrassing each other than into actually governing, we are all doomed. The Talmud's legend of failed olive, wheat and barley harvests will be repeated in a very real calamity to our economy and our ability to have a working government.
And it's not just Congress. Our entire society is being strangled by the disease of pathological certainty. We each watch, read and hear only the media that reinforce our own beliefs. We become convinced that the "other side" is made up entirely of people who are selfish, foolish and evil. We have stopped listening to each other and we have learned to justify any tactic that will attack, embarrass or undermine our opponents, even if the price is wide-scale suffering for all.
It is time to stop the plague before it gets worse.Other Posts on This Topic:
The Problem with CertaintyShoftim: Pursuing Justice Justly
God told Noah about the cruelty of the earth's creatures. God said, "Look, I am bringing the Flood waters onto the earth to kill every living, breathing thing under heaven. Everything on earth will die" (Genesis 6:17). And Noah said nothing.
God gave Noah detailed instruction on how to build the ark — what kind of trees to use, how to seal it against leaks, where to put the windows and doors, and the dimensions of its length, breadth and height. What did Noah do? He got out his axe and started cutting down trees. And he said nothing.
God said to Noah, "Bring two of every living thing into the ark, two of each form of life to keep them alive with you. They will be male and female" (Genesis 6:19). Noah assembled the menagerie. He did as he was told. And he said nothing.
Through the entire Flood story, Noah did not utter a single word. He followed God's every command. We are told three times of his absolute obedience. But he was silent.
I want to consider what kind of hero Noah is in this story. And I also want to consider God. Frustrated with the creatures that filled the earth, God decided to ditch the whole project. God opened up the floodgates that separated "the waters above from the waters below" (Genesis 1:7) to return the earth to the chaos that existed before creation's first day. Not only that, God chose one lone human being to be a witness to the terracide.
Noah played his part. Faced with the extinction of the human race, he never questioned God. He did not desperately bargain with God, as Abraham would later do in an attempt to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah did not argue and plead with God as Moses would later do when God threatened to destroy the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf. No. Noah was silent, and that silence seems to speak volumes about him.
We only hear Noah's voice later in this week's Torah portion (Noach
), when he became a drunk and passed out naked in his tent. His son Ham saw Noah lying there and told his brothers, Japheth and Shem. They came to cover up their father, carefully avoiding the sight of his nude body. When Noah woke up and found out what Ham had done, he blazed in anger against him and spoke the only words ascribed to Noah in the Torah. He said that Ham's descendants, the Canaanites, would be cursed and would become slaves to serve the descendants of his brothers — all because Ham saw his father naked when he was drunk (Genesis 9:21-27).
What is this story about? Noah was silent in the face of world-wide slaughter, but angrily cursed his own son for the "crime" of seeing him naked. God, who could not tolerate the cruelty of human beings, decided that it was better to kill them than to allow their imperfection to continue. The morality of the story seems upside-down. It inverts our expectations about right and wrong.
And all of it comes from saying nothing.
God, up to this point in the Torah, did not have any relationship with any human beings. God had not conversed with them since the days of the Garden of Eden; God only gave orders. Maybe this was the reason why God so easily came to the conclusion that humanity could be discarded with no more feeling than a scientist gives to washing a petri dish clean of bacteria. Morality, it seems, only begins with connection — with having a relationship and an emotional bond.
Noah, too, seems strangely aloof. He did not discuss the Flood with his wife and children. He just collected them and put them into the ark along with the pairs of aardvarks, guinea pigs and snakes. He did not talk to the God who did not know him, who did not relate to the struggles and conflicts of living a human life. Noah was silent, disconnected, and, therefore, without a sense of moral duty.
The Talmud seems to hint at this. Where the Torah says that Noah was "a righteous man, pure-hearted in his generation" (Genesis 6:9), the rabbis comment, "In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance" (B. Sanhedrin 108a).
This is our lesson. To be moral requires connection. You cannot live a righteous life in isolation from humanity. Morality is a trait that emerges from the experiences of caring for others, knowing their lives, seeing them in pain, having compassion for their flaws, and loving them despite it all. It cannot come from silence.
By the end of the story, God learned the lesson, for the Torah tells us, "God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1). After one hundred and fifty days of the Flood, God saw poor Noah in the ark, taking care of the animals, wondering whether he too would eventually drown in the waters that consumed the rest of the human race. God saw Noah and learned how to care about one person … and that opening of God's heart opened the possibility of caring for every
God smelled the sweet odor of Noah's sacrifice and decided, "No more shall I curse the earth because of the humans. Their desires are ill from their youth. So, no more shall I destroy all life as I have done" (Genesis 8:21). After the story of Noah, God reached out to connect with Abraham and formed a covenant — a lasting relationship based on compassion and trust.
This is the story, at last, of God forming a tender and caring connection with humanity. This also is the story of just how wrong things can go when we allow ourselves to become lost in the silence of fragmentation and disconnection. We can treat each other like petri dishes of bacteria. We can curse our own children. We can destroy worlds.
E. M. Forster said, "Only connect!" and it is the great lesson for our spiritually disconnected age. If we try to live only in the cocoon of our narrowing comfort zones, cut off from meaningful connection to others, if we pursue only our own selfish interests, we will drown. Always, at any cost, end the silence. Connecting with others is our only way to become human. In the end, it is our only way of becoming godly.
Other Posts on This Topic:Noah: The Redemption of GodCounting from Freedom to Covenant: Connection
The Hebrew month of Tishrei is one long marathon of Jewish rituals. We blasted into this month with Rosh Hashanah. We raised ourselves up with the White Fast of Yom Kippur. We entered the comfort of Sukkot's shelter. We are now in the last hurrah of Tishrei with the holiday of Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Tomorrow evening, we will light the candles for the holiday on which we read the last words of the Torah and — immediately after — begin again by reading the first words. Traditionally, everyone in the congregation receives an aliyah on Simchat Torah.
(The day on which this ritual is performed varies by movement and by congregation. In the Reform congregation I serve, we will celebrate Simchat Torah on Friday night).
People often ask me about this practice. Why do we not start reading the Torah anew on Rosh Hashanah when we begin the Jewish year? Why is the Torah reading cycle ended and begun on one of the most obscure of all Jewish festivals, when we are exhausted by all the other holidays of this month?
The Chasidic master known as Me’or Einayim (Menachem Nochum Twerski) explained that Simchat Torah is the day on which each of us is reconnected to Torah in a way that can only happen after all the other holidays of Tishrei are finished (Me'or Einayim, Emor
). He said that since there are 600,000 letters in the Torah and there were 600,000 Jews who received Torah at Mount Sinai, we conclude that each Jewish soul has a spiritual connection to one of the Torah’s letters. Simchat Torah is the day on which each of us reconnects with our special letter. We can only do this after we have been purified by repentance on the High Holy Days and comforted by dwelling in the sukkah. On this day, each of us finally merits to have an aliyah — to come up to the Torah — to meet the letter that sings to our souls.
Seen from this perspective, Simchat Torah is not just a day for rolling the Torah from one end to the other. It is the day on which we unroll ourselves to discover our unique place within the Torah. This is the task for which we have been preparing all month.
In what letter will you find your soul? Are you the letter Vav
that begins the commandment, V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha
, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Are you the Zion
of Zachor et Yom haShabbat l’kad’sho
, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”? Are you the silent Aleph
that yearns for God as it whispers, Ani Adonai Eloheichem
, “I am Adonai your God”? There are a multitude of different kinds of Jews, each with his or her own place and mission in the cosmos of the Torah.
You have traveled a long journey to reach this day. You have listened for the voice of the divine in the shofar’s blasts. You have dug deep into your past mistakes to seek atonement. You have sat under the roof of the sukkah to contemplate the stars. Now comes the culmination, the moment of ascending into Torah to discover your soul.Other Posts on This Topic:
End Beginning End BeginningVayakhel-Pekudei: Being a Dwelling for God