The Eighth Candle: We Have Come to Chase the Darkness Away

There are many reasons why we light candles on Hanukkah.  The most known is the little jug of oil that could. There was only enough oil to last for one day but a miracle made it last for eight.  The text that speaks of that event is minor in comparison to the texts that speak of other fantastic moments of Hanukkah. And yet, somehow, that is the story we tell and retell to the exclusion of all others.  Perhaps we had no army and no autonomy for 2000 years so the safest thing we could celebrate was a little jug of oil. Today we have a different Jewish reality.

A beautiful midrash describes what happened when the Hasmoneans liberated the Temple and the fighting was done.  The Temple was dark, the menorah could not be lit. The Jewish soldiers turned their spears upside down, stuck them into the ground and poured oil into the grooves at the top.  They then lit their spears on fire to illuminate the Temple. They turned their weapons into instruments of light.

Hanukkah teaches us that while we must be ready for whatever comes our way, the goal is to bring light into the darkness.

The Seventh Candle: People Are Strange When You’re A Stranger

We have writings today that shed some light on how Antiochus and his followers probably viewed the Jews of their time.  They believed Jews worshipped pigs and donkeys because we never ate them. They believed we viewed them as gods, having been influenced by the Egyptians, but we misunderstood which animals should be worshipped.  They believed Jews were lazy because we refused to work one day a week. They believed Jews were xenophobic because we preferred to live with each other. They believed Jews hated sex because we refrained from sexual intimacy on certain days of the month.  Mostly, they believed Jews were simple-minded because we believe that our God is invisible and could not take specific form.

They believed they were enlightening us and saving us from ourselves.

Hanukkah humbles us when we remember that so little has changed as we judge a stranger by seeing them only through our own experiences.

Parshat Miketz: Not You Again…and Again…and Again

In a Mussar class, a few weeks ago, we were discussing the often occurring situation of seeing someone you know but not saying hello or making eye contact.  It can be someone you’re passing on the street or someone at a gathering. Sometimes for obvious, or sometimes for inexplicable reasons, we choose to pretend not to recognize someone we know.

And sometimes the opposite is true.  I am on vacation with my family and the other day we were parking the car in a paid garage.  You had to buy a ticket from a machine to display on your dash and the family in front of us, from somewhere in South America, were unfamiliar with the machine.  We walked them through how to get the paid ticket but it was somewhat trickier than we thought. To a passer-by, it may very well have looked like an impromptu game of charades with at least 2 teams (my family alone is more than 12 people).  At last, the ticket was bought and we all warmly said our goodbyes.  

Coincidentally, the entire rest of the afternoon we kept crossing paths with this other family.  The first few times, someone just pointed out to everyone else: ‘look, there’s that family’. Then we noticed them pointing at us as well.  They were saying the same thing. After a few more times we would wave to each other and smile. It was funny and we were enjoying the extended bond of…well…not even acquaintances.

But, somehow, with family or friends we do know, we will choose not to acknowledge them.  In this week’s parshah, ‘Miketz’, Joseph is ruling Egypt during a famine and his brothers have shown up to try and get food.  He recognizes them. The same brothers who sold him into what should have been a life of horrific slavery and certain death. They are standing before him and his dream has turned into a nightmare – he just wants them to go away.  They do not recognize him and he tries repeatedly not to let them know who he is.

In fact, Joseph will try several ways to make them go away, but each time they keep coming back.  He finally enacts a plan to get his blood brother, Benjamin, into his care by framing him as a thief.  The deal he struck was that the thief remains in Egypt while everyone else goes home. But they won’t go away.  Judah insists on offering himself instead of Benjamin and all the other brothers have come along to plead the case.  From Joseph’s point of view, all the powers of Egypt can’t make these people leave him alone.

Finally, Joseph can no longer control himself and breaks down revealing who he is.  His actions to that moment most definitely read like the actions of someone trying to avoid a particular someone they meet in a movie or pass on the street.  In his case, we can well understand why he would behave the way he does and we cheer for him throughout, but, in the end, he must greet them.

The Sages teach us to receive everyone with a welcome expression on our face.  They do not make exceptions for people who bullied us in the past. It does not mean we have to stop and have lengthy conversations with everyone we’ve ever met.  A smile is a welcome expression and a moment of contact. The gesture itself reframes the moment, which can reframe everything that comes after.

Joseph’s brothers are in need of food and he always provides the food…and then he keeps sending them away.  They are never welcomed until he has no choice, but somehow they always end up right in front of him time and again.  

Coincidentally, it reflects his misunderstood  dreams come true. Coincidentally, he now determines whether they will be slaves or whether they will die a certain death of starvation.  Joseph has desperately tried to forget his original family. He married the daughter of an Egyptian priest and named his first child ‘Menasheh’ – God has made me forget the pain of my father’s house.  He is no longer called ‘Joseph’ but uses the Egyptian name Pharaoh gave him. He wears Egyptian clothes and, I dare say, walks like an Egyptian. Yet, despite EVERYTHING the brothers who sinned against him keep filling coincidence after coincidence.

As Albert Einstein said: coincidence is just God’s way of staying anonymous.

How might this text help you navigate these uncomfortable moments in the future?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Sixth Candle: I Need a Hero

One of the festive songs of Hanukkah is ‘Mi Yimalel’ – ‘Who Will Speak Of’.  Not to take anything away from our classic ‘Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel’, Mi Yimalel is a bit more layered in describing what it is we are celebrating.

When we speak of Hanukkah and the Maccabees, we often talk about the war they waged and the victory of the few over the many.  It is the stuff of fantasies. Unfortunately, outside of discussing a war, we often only think of oil, fried foods and dreidels.  Is the sophistication of Hanukkah sitting in a celebration of warfare?

The song ‘Mi Yimalel’ asks who will speak of the mighty deeds of Israel.  It then proceeds to state that every generation needs a hero who can lead everyone.  It concludes by saying that in our day all Jews must unite and stand together.

As Jews, we don’t celebrate a war or the killing of an enemy.  We celebrate heroes, leaders and the brave people with vision who unite us when we so easily divide ourselves.

Hanukkah celebrates the understanding that brave leaders with strong Jewish grounding can bring us to a place where we can overcome insurmountable odds.

The Fifth Candle: Only I Get To Say Who I Am

In the ancient world, it was common for empires to conquer lands and grow their religions.  Empire building is about maximization not minimization. When one people are consumed by another, their culture and gods are added to the existing dominant culture.  There would be some repackaging involved but, in essence, the conquered gods are still recognizable. It’s actually very practical. A conquered people are less likely to rebel if they feel they have not been disconnected from their faith or their gods.

The problem with the Jewish people was that you can’t add more gods to a monotheistic faith.  When Antiochus marched into the Temple in Jerusalem, he put an image of Zeus into the Temple (granted it looked like Antiochus but no one said heads of invading empires were humble).  Adding Zeus to the Temple is a typical way of growing the pagan pantheon of gods: the more the merrier.

It is baffling to foreign empires that this bothers Jews.  It seemed to work with other conquered peoples, why were we being so difficult?  This problem arises each and every time. It happens with Antiochus and it will happen with the Romans.  They truly believed they were saving us from our primitive, myopic view of the world. It is the age old story of the dominant and powerful people believing they must save the native, primitive and backward people.

In fact, some Hellenistic concepts did make their way into Judaism because we decided which concepts enhanced our perspectives.  We decided what fit our fundamental identities and then brought them in through a Jewish lens.

Hanukkah is about celebrating the right to self-define.

The Fourth Candle: Let the Man Handle It

Hanukkah represents a time when everything Jewish was under attack.  The people, the religion, the culture, independence, autonomy, monotheism, family, Torah, everything that connected us to anything Jewish was under attack.  We often think Hanukkah was a time of warriors and battles with weapons and armies. But the books of the Maccabees also describe the civilian resistance that was waged by the women.

While the men picked up weapons, the women made sure to pass Judaism to their children.  Circumcision was punishable by death, as was teaching Torah, Hebrew, keeping Shabbat or eating Kosher.  And yet, story after story is recorded of women who never gave an inch. These stories are tremendously heartbreaking and difficult to read but it is clear that these women knew that if the war is won, but Judaism is lost, then nothing has been won.

Jewish law thanks women for their steadfastness, courage and bravery by stating that while the Hanukkah candles are burning, women are to refrain from labour.  So every night while those candles burn, the women should gather around the candlelight and share their stories. It happens around sunset – around dinner. For these 8 days, the men of the household are to handle everything while Jewish history honours our women.

Hanukkah is about recognizing the unsung heroes among us.

The Third Candle: Get the Gelt While the Getting’s Good

Hanukkah gelt is a traditional way of celebrating Hanukkah in Judaism.  It is a time to give money, traditionally coins, deliciously chocolate coins, to our kids.  In today’s world, people are giving gifts and forgoing the ‘gelt’ (Yiddish for money) but perhaps we shouldn’t give up on the gelt so quickly.  

Hanukkah coins are used to bet on the outcome of spinning the dreidel.  Everyone would put money into the pot and bet on which letter the dreidel would land on.  There are 4 Hebrew letters on a dreidel, to spell out the sentence of a great miracle happening there.  Legend has it that because Jews weren’t allowed to study Hebrew, on penalty of death, parents created these toys with the Hebrew alphabet on it as a way to continue teaching Hebrew to their children.  In order to fool the soldiers, they told their children to make it look like they are playing a money game. Then the soldiers won’t look too closely at the dreidel because the money would distract them.

It is traditional to still play the dreidel game and still bet with chocolate coins, but the legend doesn’t always get told.  

When we give Hanukkah gelt to our kids we should tell them the legend.

Hanukkah is about being creative to maintain our Jewish identities as we secure it from one generation to another.

The Second Candle: Liberating Gender Barriers

There are several Jewish texts that we believe describe the events or time of Hanukkah.  The first are the books of the Maccabees, which tell of the Hasmoneans and Judah the Maccabee.  There is another text that we believe intends to speak to the Hasmonean time, although it is not set in that time period, and that is the book of Judith.  None of these texts have entered the Jewish canon, and so they are not often studied, but they describe interesting gender diversities that challenge our stereotypes.  

Judah the Maccabee was a warrior and Judith was a widow living quietly in her town.  When Judah the Maccabee liberated the Temple, he and his men are described as sweeping it clean, hanging curtains and decorating the rooms.  When Judith’s town is threatened by an enemy and no one will fight them, Judith plans and executes a strategy to behead the enemy general, Holofernes, and gather an army to fight.

Judah and Judith, the same name, the same goal, each crossing gender stereotypes of their time.

Hanukkah teaches us to exceed our perceived limitations to fight evil and achieve our goals.

The First Candle: Looking Forward or Looking Backward?

There was an argument about lighting the Hanukkah candles between two famous Sages: HIllel and Shammai.  The holiday of Hanukkah was shaped on the holiday of Sukkot. During Sukkot, we offered 70 sacrifices for all the nations of the world.  We started with 70 the first day and offered a few less every day of the holiday. Because we started with a number that symbolized the totality of holiness, Shammai argued that Hanukkah should also start by lighting 8 candles the first night and reducing each night by 1.  That way we honour our past and maintain the impact of holiness into the world. Hillel argued that we should understand our past but always look forward in time and increase holiness in the world.  

Do we use our past to inspire our future (Hillel) or do we use our past to shape our future (Shammai)?  Both present compelling arguments.  

Hillel’s argument carried the day.  We begin with 1 candle and increase candles every night.  

Hanukkah inspires us to elevate ourselves as we move forward.

Because He Dared to Dream

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a good week.  I’ve spent a few days hearing about strange dreams.  Not the kind that come from daydreams and zoning out but actual dreams.  A young woman I know is expecting her first baby and is starting to have very strange dreams. They are shocking to her and a bit frightening and so I have been reassuring her that everything is fine and that pregnancy brings about strange dreams.  This week’s parshah, Vayeshev, is filled with Joseph’s dreams and so my mind has been circling back and forth around dreams.

The Sages in the Talmud tell us that dreams are messages you send yourself.  It is then important to try and read those messages (somewhere Freud is dancing a hora).  The Sages then repeat in several different places that the power of the dream never lies within the dream itself, it lies within the interpretation of the dream.  It is not the content of the message that will matter, it is how we hear it. Put another way, meaning does not rest within a book, it rests within the reader.

When I was teaching Tefillah in kindergarten, we were discussing the morning prayer of ‘Modeh Ani’.  The first words uttered when opening our eyes in the morning is to thank God for returning my soul to me.  Of course, the kids all ask where their souls went at night that now they’re back. The conversation pretty much centred around God showing our souls wonderful things when we sleep as a reward for the good things we do.  One kid asked if nightmares are then a punishment for bad things we do. Everyone agreed that nightmares are punishment (ah, if the world could only stay as black and white as this). But one kid objected and said that dreams can’t be punishments.  Nightmares are when God takes our souls and shows them the things that scare us the most so we can see them when we’re safe in our beds and together with God. That answer has stuck with me all these years. This is why the Sages tell us to learn Torah from children.

Interestingly, the Talmud also mentions that our souls journey at night and bring us dreams of things we have never seen or hear languages we have never learned.  In the Talmud, we journey with angels.

I can’t help but think of Joseph and his two dreams.  The Torah tells us that Joseph and his brothers don’t get along.  It’s only made worse by the ‘special’ robe Jacob gives him. It’s not a multi-coloured robe, it’s striped.  That actually makes all the difference. A richly coloured robe would designate royalty while a striped robe designates being the heir.  Jacob has designated Joseph as his heir because he is first born of Rachel, the loved wife. Of course his brothers will hate him now – it is a terrible insult to them, but most importantly, to their mother, Leah, the first wife.  Insulting someone personally is minuscule in comparison to insulting their mother. The Torah tells us they cannot ever speak a kind word to Joseph.

And so Joseph dreams his dreams.  The first one has him working with his brothers in the fields as they bind sheaves.  He says the brothers’ sheaves circled his and bow. The brothers are appalled and blame him for dreaming that they should serve him.  Things get worse between them, which leads us to the crucial question: why would he then tell them of a second dream?

Joseph returns to his brothers and describes a second dream where the sun, the moon and stars are bowing to him.  He also tells his father this dream. Everyone gets mad at him. How dare he think that the family would worship him?  Jacob seems to understand that the sun and the moon represent himself and Rachel, except some commentaries point out that Rachel has already died so Jacob’s interpretation could not be true.  In other words, maybe the problem isn’t the dream, it’s that it’s being wrongly interpreted.

What if Joseph isn’t dreaming a dream of worship but rather a dream of welcoming.  In the ancient world people bow to each other to welcome each other more commonly than to worship.  Joseph’s first dream has him working with his brothers, sharing a common activity in the field. Maybe their sheaves surrounded him in an image of inclusion and then bow with a gesture of welcome.  Maybe the brothers have entirely missed what he was trying to tell them and so he tries telling them again with a second dream. He tries to tell his father how isolated he is feeling.

When everything backfires so badly, Joseph doesn’t stop dreaming, he just stops telling them about it.  They never get past feeling insulted by the striped coat and so it is the insult that is dictating the interpretations.  The dreams trigger Joseph being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Only when Joseph masters interpreting dreams will he rise to great power in Egypt.

The key is not in the dreams, it is in how we choose to hear them.  We have two options: the first is to accept the brothers’ interpretations and conclude Joseph was self-centred, ego-driven and thoughtless.  The second option is to question their interpretation and conclude the brothers could not put aside feeling insulted in order to hear a genuine appeal coming their way.  

We learn nothing from the first option.  The second option makes us question how often we allow a perceived insult to block us from hearing an authentic plea.  

Dreams are messages we send ourselves, they are journeys of the soul. We must read them with care, and when we hear the dreams of others, we must always hear the person speaking the dream before we hear the dream.