Friday, December 23, 2016

An American Chanukah

Last Thursday I’m sitting in my Rotary meeting, and the president is going through announcements as usual. It sounds just as entertaining as all that. At some point he mentions a charity project for Christmas and the person next to me (not Jewish) leans over and says “doesn’t that bother you?” What she meant was the question of representation; why did Christmas have to be the default. Why couldn’t he be more sensitive.

I shrugged; honestly, I kind of assume that Christmas is where people’s heads are at, even today in a world where you can buy a menorah at Target in Wilmington Delaware (or even Shreveport Louisiana) and Ryan Seacrest mentions Chanukah first in his broadcast. What I find funny, and I’ve shared this with friends, is that when you stop to think about it, Chanukah is as quintessential an American holiday as you’re going to get. Think about it: what do we celebrate? Freedom, especially religious freedom. Freedom won by insurgents fighting off foreign influences. And how do we celebrate that freedom? Through fried food, gambling and lighting things on fire. I mean really, what could be more American than that?

Of course, the most important aspect of Chanukah, at least for me, is the idea of publicizing the miracle. We’re not just supposed to light lights in the privacy of our homes; we’re supposed to put those lights out, in such a way that people can see them, in order to let people know that, in days gone by, our people won its liberty and restored what was lost. This is despite our history of having to hide our identities or feeling uncomfortable broadcasting our Jewishness for fear of bigotry or reprisal; we put the lights out and remind the world of the importance of freedom and justice and goodness.

If that is true for putting the lights in our windows, so must it be true in our own lives as well. As Jews we must be, in our own lives, lights to the world, reminding those around us this season and every season of our values; supporting the vulnerable when possible, lovingly rebuking inappropriate and hateful behavior when necessary, and speaking truth to power always. As with any good American, any good Jewish holiday, lighting lights and singing songs only works if we are reminded of our task--to be a light ourselves, to speak out for what is right, and do what is right.

Tomorrow night we light the lights, we celebrate freedom. Let’s do it publically, joyfully. And let’s let the lights remind us of our tasks as Jews and Americans, to be a light of freedom and justice to those around us. To remind those around us that these were not just miracles that happened in that time in this season, but that we may fulfill that miracle ourselves, in our own ways. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Parashat Vayetze: Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah!

So this past week I met Marisa at the new diner on Marsh Rd. There was a couple of women there with their kids, and the kids were being pretty terrible. Adorable. Sweet, but terrible. At one point one of the mom’s was letting her kid sit on the table itself. The waitress was clearly having a time of it. Now, what would you do? We could have sat in judgement, we could say something. When I got up to pay for our meal, I tipped our waiter, and then tipped the waitress of the kids table as well.  Was it the right thing to do? The best thing? No idea. But at least it was doing something to acknowledge that waitress.

When I was a teenager and I used to go to youth group events, my favorite song at song session was Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, by Andy Vogel. Like most kids reared on Debbie Friedman and Kol Beseder I learned my Pirkei Avot in the form of a song I could dance to with other nerdy Jewish kids like me. I never really thought about the lyrics—nobody did—we were too busy stamping our feet and injecting various “oh ohs” and the like. The words, of course, come from Pirkei Avot 4:2—One Mitzvah leads to another, while one sin leads to another, and when one acts justly it is very good.
It doesn’t get sung nearly as often these days—it’s thirty years old at this point—but I feel like we need to start singing it again. Or at least be reminded of the text: one mitzvah leads to another. Our kindness, our actions—no matter how small—matter. The way we treat each other matters. And we can choose to live in little bubbles insensitive to the needs of others, drawing up the drawbridge and hiding behind our own ramparts. Or we can choose in our everyday actions to acknowledge the needs of those around us.

We see that clearly in our Torah portion. Jacob has left Canaan, has dreamed his dream, and has come to Haran, whereupon he sees Rachel and sees the stone covering the well. It should say “there was a large stone on the mouth of the well” but that’s not the actual order of the text. It actually says “the stone was large on the mouth of the well.” The s’fat emet understands this as a metaphor: the stumbling block—our evil urge—may be everywhere, but it is heaviest and largest on the mouth of the well. What is the well? Our words, our mouths, our hearts, our intentions, our own actions, pick whichever one you want. The point is, once Jacob understands the situation, he by himself removes the stone from the well. He takes the action. Now, we know this is in part to impress Rachel, or at least inspired by Rachel, but so what? He does what is right in that moment. His actions improve the lot of the shepherds around him. His actions mattered.

Jacob’s actions matter and so do ours. When we chose to act with kindness, even if the action is small, it changes the life of that person. To do otherwise is to leave the stone upon the well, to allow ourselves to act selfishly, to allow people’s pain to persist. May we each find the strength to move that stone and live those words: then surely our lives will be just and it will be good.