Saturday, 6:10 p.m.
Chanukah begins for my family. We visit my parents' home in Palm Beach Gardens so the kids can celebrate the holiday with their grandparents. We light the menorah for the first time this year on their kitchen table and I am proud—oh, so proud—of my kids who recite the blessings beautifully, say "thank you" after receiving each gift, and give each grandparent a big hug with lots of kisses. We eat dinner, linger over good conversation, and drive home. It is a very successful beginning to the holiday. I am wondering if the third helping of latkes smothered with sour cream was a mistake. Probably.
I wake up to find that my younger daughter is excited. Up to this point, I had not remembered just how excited she gets over Chanukah. She is bouncing on our bed, asking questions about plans for the day, anticipating presents, and contemplating craft projects. I am still in the bed, barely awake, wondering if I can make it to the shower. Success. After a quick breakfast, we round up the kids into my car to drive to Religious School. On the way, we stop at Dunkin' Donuts where I purchase a dozen jelly doughnuts from the drive-through. These will be the sufganiyot I will offer to the students in my Confirmation Class. Not for the last time, I wonder why Dunkin' Donuts does not market its jelly doughnuts as an exceptional Chanukah treat. Do they even know...?
Sunday, 9:30 a.m.
We have a family education event this morning for the sixth and seventh grades and there is a huge turn-out. Our theme for today is "Lashon HaRa," the prohibition in Jewish law against speaking ill of another person. There are fifty or so students and parents gathered in the Temple's social hall for the occasion. I start the program by acting out a famous chassidic story about a woman who goes to a rabbi seeking forgiveness for the sin of gossiping. The rabbi instructs her to tear open a feather pillow in the town market and release all the feathers. The woman is confused by the instructions, but does as the rabbi tells her. When she later returns to the rabbi to receive her forgiveness, he tells her that she must first go back to the market and collect all the feathers. The woman protests that it is impossible, but the rabbi teaches her that lashon hara is considered such a serious sin because, like the feathers from that pillow, it is impossible ever to take back words once they have been released to the winds. Good story. I then take the parents into the sanctuary while the cantor does a crafts project with the kids about lashon hara (with feathers) in the social hall. My lesson with the parents focusses on the positive character traits we want to teach our children and how to connect them to Jewish ethical teachings.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
I start class with my eleven Confirmation students. The sufganiyot are a big hit. (No surprise there). I love teaching this class. The students are a diverse group, including loud kids and quiet kids, serious kids and fun-loving kids. However, they are all bright, kind, thoughtful and committed to being Jews. (That's not always a given in a community where there are only a handful of Jews in each public school grade.) Today, the lesson is on cheating, which I know will be a hot-button issue for a lot of these students. I'm not surprised that they are all-too-willing to share stories about cheating in their schools. Some even admit to having cheated themselves. (No names. What is said in the Confirmation class, stays in the Confirmation class.) We talk about the harm that cheating does to other students, to teachers, to schools, and, most of all, to the cheating students themselves. We talk about Jewish values of trust, truthfulness and fairness. We talk about the prohibition in Jewish law against deceiving others. They get it. There is still powdered sugar on their beautiful faces.
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.
During the service at the end of Religious School, I talk about Chanukah as a holiday that recalls miracles. I point out that the miracle of Chanukah—a story about a one-day supply of oil that lasted for eight days—does not seem like such a big deal. However, I tell them that many of life's miracles are easily overlooked. I ask the students to give me some examples. One child says that her brother just passed an exam to get into the Air Force Academy, and that is like a miracle for him. Another child says that the way her big sister loves her is the biggest miracle in her life. One child says that our congregation itself is a miracle. Don't I have a great job?
Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
Today we are showing one of the six films in this year's Treasure Coast Jewish Film Festival. Today's movie is Reuniting the Rubins, a comedy about a grandmother who manipulates her son into reuniting his children for a Passover seder. With my rabbinic colleagues from the other two Jewish congregations on the Treasure Coast, we introduce the film with our usual ritual of lighting a candle and reciting the blessing for the study of Torah (yes, there is Torah in watching contemporary Jewish films, if you look for it). I find the movie to be a bit silly and sentimental (also, the sound system doesn't work as well as it should). However, I see that The Rubins connects well with the 90 or so people who have come to see it. During the discussion that follows the film, people observe themes that are familiar to them—the difficulty of keeping families together in an age of geographic dispersion, Jewish mourning customs that seem anachronistic and moving at the same time, a Jewish community that is so diverse that it can be difficult to get Jews to agree on anything. I learn that there is meaning for people in a place where I mostly saw triviality.
Sunday 5:45 p.m.
I come home tired from a long day of work. (I've been invited to two public menorah lightings this evening, but I'm not going to make it to either of them. It's too late and I'm too exhausted.) Yet, there is more work to be done. My two children are just as excited about Chanukah as they were this morning and they want more latkes. My wife starts a batch of potato latkes and I am enlisted to make the cheese latkes. The kids help and it is a huge production that takes over the kitchen and spreads into the living room. We set up the menorahs (our family lights several on each night of the holiday). We make the blessings, sing the songs, devour the meal, exchange gifts, sing some more, and frighten the dog with our clapping, hollering, and merrymaking. At one point, as the four of us are bound in a big family hug, with our four noggins bumping against each other, I am speechless with joy. My wife catches my eyes with hers and says one word: "This."
I know exactly what "This" means. "This moment," she is saying silently, "is why we married each other seventeen years ago. This experience is what makes up for all the tough times, all the difficulties of raising children, all the hardships of a demanding job, all the conflicts that need to be resolved, and all the problems that just have to wait. This wonderful, blessed moment is what keeps us going, keeps us loving life and each other, keeps the fire in our souls burning from every yesterday until every tomorrow." I just gaze into her face and whisper back the single word in complete agreement: "This."
Chanukah is a minor holiday of little miracles. It is eight days of trying to notice the extraordinary that is concealed in the garments of the ordinary. A day's worth of oil burned for eight days? Who even notices a miracle like that? I'll tell you who. It is the same people who delight in hearing the squeals of an eight-year-old girl, the people who ponder how to raise a child to take pleasure in doing what is right, the people who understand that being part of a caring community is itself a miracle. It is people who deeply know the good that has been given to them just through the gesture of a hug, a glance, a single word.
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Ten Thoughts About Being a Congregational Rabbi
The Audacity of the Miracle