Torah Reflections: December 18 – 24, 2016

Chanukah 5777

The Next Messiah

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of light, the commemoration of an ancient miracle. It is a time for us to reflect on the light in our life, and be reminded of the miracle that is life. Chanukah means “dedication.” It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish worship by the victorious Maccabee rebels, after its desecration following the Greek pagan invasion and takeover. The rebellion came at the end of 150 years of the Jews living under Greek dominion. The Greek leaders cared mostly about keeping themselves in power, concentrating wealth in as few hands as possible, and imposing their culture, their values, upon everyone else. Chanukah is a story of the uprising of people living under a rule that didn’t resemble them, that didn’t reflect their values as a nation. The revolt broke out because Jews felt disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected and spiritually crushed. Theirs was a struggle to maintain a way of life that they saw being systematically eradicated. There are times when history seems to be repeating itself. I believe ours is such a time.

In order to stay in power the Greeks pit the Jews against each other: those who embraced Hellenism against those who resisted it. The divisiveness came to a head when the High Priest appointment to the Temple was taken away from its legitimate heir by the Greek ruler, and given—after a major bribe—to a pro-assimilation candidate. What it meant then was that brothers of the same nation became enemies overnight and civil war ensued. The war turned into revolt against Greek rule only after the latter stepped into the conflict on the assimilationists’ side.

Learning from our ancestors’ history, we need to reject the divisive mindset that elements of our media and our politicians have led us to buy into: that we are a deeply divided nation, living in a highly individualistic society, where the accumulation of stuff matters more than people. We need to let go of the alienating isolating storyline that we have been fed to believe; and rebuild relationships based on mutual support and shared action. And part of that shared action will be to stand up together to fight our modern “Greek rulers” when they seek to implement divisive, racist, misogynistic policies; when they aim at undermining our constitution, our Bill of Rights and the fundamentals of our democracy, or at destroying our planet’s ecosystem. Today, we need to empower each other to dream and enact a different dream, to envision a different future. We need to come together to manifest that vision, that dream, in our cities, in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Today we are called to rededicate our Temple.

So where do we start? We can start in the only place there ever is to start: right here and right now. The lesson of Chanukah points us in one direction: the tremendous power of community to change our collective fate. Bet Alef as a committed spiritual community can forward such a vision. Our vision is one where we manifest in our world all that we learn, who we each become by practical engagement in the very spirituality we embrace. Our vision is one where our community itself becomes the container through which these spiritual values are expressed; where we create the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of life we want to participate in, the kind of society we want to raise the next generation in. Like the Maccabees, we are the ones called to spiritual warriorship.

This is “applied spirituality.” In Jewish tradition one’s spiritual height is measured by one’s actions in the world. The same is true for our communities. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quoted an ancient sutra that says: “The next Buddha will be the Sangha.” Our rabbis would have put it thus: “The next Mashiach will be the Kehilla” or, in other words, “The next Messiah will be the Community.” And for this Messiah, we certainly don’t have to wait.

Happy Chanukah to all of you.

Torah Reflections – December 14-20, 2014

Miketz

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

The Next Messiah

The holiday of Chanukah is a celebration of light, the commemoration of an ancient miracle. It is a time for us to reflect on the light in our life, and be reminded of the miracle that is life. Chanukah means “dedication.” It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish worship by the victorious Maccabee rebels, after its desecration following the Greek pagan invasion and takeover. The rebellion came at the end of 150 years of the Jews living under Greek dominion. The Greek leaders cared mostly about keeping themselves in power, concentrating wealth in as few hands as possible, and imposing their culture, their values, upon everyone else. Chanukah is a story of the uprising of people living under a rule that didn’t resemble them, that didn’t reflect their values as a nation. The revolt broke out because Jews felt disenfranchised, alienated, disrespected and spiritually crushed. Theirs was a struggle to maintain a way of life that they saw being systematically eradicated. There are times when history seems to be repeating itself. I believe ours is such a time.

In order to stay in power the Greeks pit the Jews against each other: those who embraced Hellenism against those who resisted it. The divisiveness came to a head when the High Priest appointment to the Temple was taken away from its legitimate heir by the Greek ruler, and given — after a major bribe — to a pro-assimilation candidate. In our days this would be akin to unlimited financial contribution by special interests. What it meant then was that brothers of the same nation became enemies overnight and civil war ensued. The war turned into revolt against Greek rule only after the latter stepped into the conflict on the assimilationists’ side.

Learning from our ancestors’ history, we need to reject the divisive mindset that elements of our media and our politicians have led us to buy into: that we are a deeply divided nation, living in a highly individualistic society, where the accumulation of stuff matters more than people. We need to let go of the alienating isolating storyline that we have been fed to believe; and rebuild relationships based on mutual support and shared action. Today, we need to empower each other to dream a different dream, to envision a different future. We need to come together to manifest that vision, that dream, in our cities, in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Today we are called to rededicate our Temple.

So where do we start? We can start in the only place there ever is to start: right here and right now. The lesson of Chanukah points us in one direction: the tremendous power of community to change our collective fate. Bet Alef as a committed spiritual community can forward such a vision. Our vision is one where we manifest in our world all that we learn, who we each become by practical engagement in the very spirituality we embrace. Our vision is one where our community itself becomes the container through which these spiritual values are expressed; where we create the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of life we want to participate in, the kind of society we want to raise the next generation in. Like the Maccabees, we are the ones called to spiritual warriorship — to compassion and care for one another. We are the ones called to open our hearts to break down the isolation, in order to rebuild relationships between us on a basis of trust, mutual interdependence, and love.

This is “applied spirituality.” In Jewish tradition one’s spiritual height is measured by one’s actions in the world. The same is true for our communities. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quoted an ancient sutra that says: “The next Buddha will be the Sangha.” Our rabbis would have put it thus: “The next Mashiach will be the Kehillah” or, in other words, “The next Messiah will be the Community.” And for this Messiah, we certainly don’t have to wait.

Happy Chanukah.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Falling in Love With What Is

We spent part of the day at the beach in Tel Aviv today. It was good, on this second day, to be able to bathe in the sun, get our feet buried in the sand and dip our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. To me, these moments are a doorway to a deeper presence, to a relaxed place in my body.

But just before we walked the beach, Jana brought us to this little corner of the Tel Aviv beachfront promenade, where every Saturday, early afternoon, Israelis come together to dance what is called here: “Rikudei Am,” or traditional “People Dances” in English. A DJ sets up in that little square and people just show up to dance together. Most of us think of the “Hora” when we think of traditional Jewish dance, but there is so much more to it than that. Traditional Israeli music includes influences from the Yemenite, Middle Eastern, Spanish and African traditions as much as—and, in fact, much more than—the Klezmer and Eastern European musical styles that we mostly encounter in North America. For close to two hours we watched Israelis from all walks of life, young and old, men and women, dance and sing together around that little square by the beach. It was incredible!

It was incredible because most of us see Israel through the prism of the news media. We create in our minds a certain image of the Israelis. We generalize. But here, we were confronted with the disarming simple reality of a people that is deeply united by a powerful sense of a shared experience, a people that loves to dance in the streets of its cities, very much alive and vibrant. Watching this group dance helped me remember the human side of Israel, with all its flaws and all its problems, still clinging to a semblance of normalcy, still wanting to celebrate the light of its being. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful.

We closed the day driving back up to Jerusalem to witness the kindling of the eighth candle of Chanukah. We walked the streets of Nachlaot, an old neighborhood right at the center of the city just as people began to light their Chanukiot. A few orthodox guys suddenly appeared at the window of their street level apartment, and as they were pouring olive oil in their eight little cups, not just our group but perhaps 30 Israelis wandering the streets with us, stopped to watch them too. They lit their Chanukiah while all 40 of us in the street joined them in chanting the blessings and singing the traditional Chanukah songs. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful too.

Israel has that power; the power to remind us to stop running and pause to pay attention to this life as it is fast unfolding in front of our eyes. People are beautiful if we only take the time to look at them without letting our vision be blurred by the stories we have made up about who they are. Israel teaches us to let ourselves be surprised, to approach each moment with a sense of awe, an eagerness to discover, and to be comfortable with not knowing what’s next. It is a state of being that is very freeing even if scary for some of us who like to live more predictable lives; but it holds the keys to falling deeply in love with what is, and that is priceless.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Hineini

Could you pinch me please? I am having a hard time believing it, but we are here—we are all here—in Israel, ready to embark on a new journey of self-discovery through the landscape and the people of this magical land.

I took a taxi from the airport to Jerusalem on Tuesday just as the sun was setting. It was one of these minibus cabs that sit 10 people. It’s cheaper to take those because all 10 passengers are sharing the costs, but it also means that, unless you are the first one on the route to be dropped off, you could be in for a long ride. I was the seventh. I could easily have been upset—exhausted as I was after a 20 hour flight—about the fact that it took me another two hours to get to my friends’ place instead of the normal 45 minutes it would have usually taken. But how could I be when I was treated to the most gorgeous lightshow. Dropping off one passenger at a time, the cab crisscrossed the many neighborhoods of North Jerusalem and I got to witness the thousands of Chanukah menorahs (or chanukiot) lit in the countless windows of hundreds of apartment buildings one street after another. What a sight! And if you missed the ones in the apartments’ windows, you could see the giant electric chanukiot at every street corner, every city square, every park, and on the roofs of government buildings and hotels, as well as in every little store on the street, from the wine shop to the mini mart, from the hairdresser to the falafel stand. Flickering candles everywhere.

Ahl ha-nisim v’al ha-nifla’ot” they sing here; dedicating their candles “for the miracles and the awe filled times.” And so our trip begins, with the keen awareness of the miracle of this and every moment, the miracle that Israel even exists, the miracle that we are here, the miracle of each day we wake up to no matter where we are on the planet. It begins with a sense of awe; a sense of gratitude and deep appreciation.

The very first stop of our trip, tomorrow morning, comes from a response to an invitation that came through Jana of a woodworker who builds the most amazing Arks, Torah reading tables and other religious artifacts out of wood. I shared with our group how perfect I thought it was that we get to start our journey here visiting with a Jewish carpenter!

Ahl ha-nisim v’al ha-nifla’ot… Hineini – I am here.

Chanukah 2011

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