Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Only in NFTY

Today I was reminded of how lax I was in writing about the eight miracles of Chanukah in our modern world. Tonight, however, I witnessed one that was worth all the others I skipped.
Tonight is the third night of NFTY-STR's Winter Regional convention. Every year teens from all over South Florida gather for four days of programming led by their regional board. Every year on the third night they run a program called "STR Search," which is basically a talent show. The first act tonight was a senior girl who I have seen sing four years in a row. She is a good singer who, bluntly put, thinks she's great. She gets a little too loud and a lot too close to the microphone. She also happens to be a high functioning autistic child, so nobody minds. As an adult, I think it is great to let her sing away. I know that she has issues but she loves to express herself in song, so I tolerate her. But here's the miracle: the high school kids to whom she sings. The self-focused, apathetic, materialistic kids who don't want to do anything but feed their desires, they don't just tolerate her. They love her.

When she sings, they sing along, they hoot encouragingly, and they cheer while she pushes through difficult parts of the song. When she finishes, they give her a standing ovation. It was so beautiful, I felt tears forming. But I wasn't alone. A quick glance around the advisors sitting in the back taught me that I was not alone by far.

These kids at NFTY-STR are an incredible miracle. They make me proud to work with them, proud to do what I do, and consistently impressed by the vast amounts of compassion they are capable of.

Thank you, NFTY-STR. You are the best gift I have gotten this Chanukah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Third Day of Chanukah: The Miracle of Freedom

Today on Facebook I saw a picture.

It was a picture of Gilad Shalit celebrating Chanukah at home.  Gilad Shalit, for over 5 years, was held captive by Hamas militants.  From the time he was 19 to 25, he was imprisoned and deprived of many of the freedoms the rest of the world takes for granted.  On October 18, just over two months ago, he was released in exchange for over 1000 Palestinians who had been captured by Israel.

It is a simple picture but it expresses nothing less than a miracle.  Gilad Shalit looks great.  A bandaged hand and skinny frame, but smiling and standing on his own two feet.  He looks like he is celebrating with six other people (as evidenced by the six glasses on the table), and he is lighting the Chanukiah in his parents’ home.  The fact that he could even be photographed like this exemplifies the miracle of freedom. 
So often we sit in our homes and light our Chanukiot without even a thought to how lucky we are to be able to do so.  Gilad Shalit could not celebrate any holidays for over 5 years, and now because of the perseverance of his family and the willingness of the Israeli government to compromise, we are able to celebrate with him, and acknowledge our own freedom this Chanukah.
May we understand how blessed we are to be free to light our Chanukiot this Chanukah.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Second Chanukah MIracle

Today I noticed the miracle of sibling love.  Last night we lit candles and opened presents as Natalie ran out the door to a Chanukah party for work.  The kids and I had pizza and enjoyed a gift from the previous night: Spy Kids 4.  This is, I admit, an awful movie, but my children love it.

So as the movie was coming to an end I decided to play parent.  I paused the DVD and told them the movie would be continued when teeth were brushed and pajamas were on.  Without so much as a complaint the boys sprang into action as I grabbed Isabella.  Bella loves to brush her teeth, so she takes a bit longer than the boys.  As she finished I noticed her need for a change, so before going up to get her pajamas I stopped at the diaper station.

Here is where the miracle happened.  I heard the boys finishing upstairs, and I thought maybe I would just put Bella to bed when we got up there.  Instead of just coming down, however, Alexander came bearing Bella’s pajamas.  He told me he wanted to make sure she could get ready too.  So he watched as I put her in her pajamas, then asked if he could sit with her through the end of the movie.  The two of them sat snuggling, stroking each others hair, and Alex cooed softly to her, “I love you, Bella!”

Watching a 4-year-old be so tender with his baby sister was truly a miracle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ma'i Chanukah?

Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight nights?

Why do we light eight-branch candelabra?

In looking at three different texts about the “history” of Chanukah, we can read three different answers.

First, from the book of II Maccabees, the Chanukah celebration is described as being modeled after Sukkot:

They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.  7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.  8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year (2 Maccabees 10:6-8).

When I read this I picture the exhausted Jewish troops discussing their need for a victory party and debating how they would celebrate.  The most recent holiday before the dedication would have been Sukkot, the “festival of booths.”  So they would have been disappointed in how they had to celebrate two months prior.  Still reminiscing about how Sukkot could have been or would have been if the Temple was under their control, they decided to model their rededication festivities after Sukkot.  Makes a lot of sense!

About 100 years later or more, the Jewish historian Josephus explains the same phenomenon.  He explains that when the Maccabees were surveying the damage done to the Temple after the war, they found eight spears sticking out of the ground, four on either side of the entrance to the Holy of Holies.  That was clearly a sign that they should celebrate their dedication for eight days.

Another 400 years or so later, the Talmud explains that

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, which they lay with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp for eight days (Shabbat 21b).

This is the answer we all come up with when we think about the miracle of Chanukah, but it wasn’t written about until several hundred years after the Maccabean revolt!  According to the principal of Ockham’s razor, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be true.  So which is simpler: that a one-day cruse of oil lasted eight days or that a group of people wanted to relive a holiday they enjoyed a lot?  Probably the latter.

But more important than trying to figure out what really happened over 2000 years ago is the realization what the development of our ancient texts teaches us.  The ragtag group of warrior priests winning the battles over the Syrian Greeks was a miracle.  It was amazing that they were able to come to some sort of victory against all odds.  That was truly something to celebrate.  Perhaps as the years went on they wanted to attribute the victory more to God and less to the guerrilla warriors.  That’s terrific, and makes for a great story.  So they changed the miracle from the battlefield to the candle light.  That’s ok, because Judaism is all about taking the needs of the day and reacting to them as a people.  The rabbis of the Talmud created such a powerful story that we still teach it to our children today. 

But no matter how amazing their stories are, the rabbis never teach us that their way is the final word.  They instead teach us that it is the responsibility of learned Jews to notice the miracles of our day.  We might not see a pillar of smoke and fire or a flaming chariot with fiery horses, but we will see a flower blooming.  We will connect with a friend, and notice the beauty in the world around us.  These are all miracles, and they should be noted as nothing less.  It is up to us to tell the stories of the miracles we see every day.

So this week I will try to point out one miracle for each of the eight days of Chanukah.  As the first day draws to a close, I remember the latkes my family and I ate last night.  To me it was nothing short of a miracle that my wife (very afraid of trying new things) thought the latkes with beets in them were amazing.  (She supposedly doesn’t even like beets!)  So today’s miracle is for new things: may we all enjoy them this Chanukah!

Chag Urim Sameach!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fighting Against Jack-O-Lanterns

For the fourth year in a row, I have gone to rebuild New Orleans with a group of high school students.  It has been six years since Hurricane Katrina blew past New Orleans, six years since the devastation wrought by the flooding took place.  Each year brings a different experience, a different group of teens, a different perspective.  Yet each year has a stronger impact on me than the year before.

The first time I went was 2007.  Rabbi Andy Koren and I had been chatting that summer, and he brought up the idea that he wanted to bring a group of teens to clean up New Orleans.  He asked if I had any interest in a trip like that, and I responded resounding in the positive.  That was all we spoke of it until just after the school year started.  He called me and asked if I was still interested, because he needed a few more teens to make the trip viable.  If I could bring a few and he brought a few we could make it work together.  So we met in New Orleans that winter: 8 from Temple Sinai in Miami, FL, and 15 from Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.  That was the foundation on which we have tried to build each consecutive year, and this year was our best trip yet with the highest number of teens participating: 11 from Miami, 15 from Greensboro, and 5 from Roanoke, VA (their first time).

It is an exhausting whirlwind adventure for teens and chaperones alike. We go on a tour of New Orleans.  We visit Tulane University. We work in a soup kitchen. We build homes. We do environmental repair. We join Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie for Kabbalat Shabbat. We go to Rock and Bowl on Saturday night.  We come home physically exhausted and spiritually inspired.

This year our first day was touring and touring.  We met our tour guide Julie for burgers, then toured through the streets of New Orleans.  Those of us who were veterans on the trip (three of the adults, four of the kids) recognized the flood sites, levies, and pumping stations.  We remembered the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, so beautiful and calm, and the stories about how high the waters get on a windy day, not to mention during a hurricane of any magnitude.  We also noticed how clean and pretty the city looks on the surface.  There are new houses, new businesses, new street signs, and many of the lots are cleaned out and ready for sale.  The problem is under the surface.  The locals call it the “Jack-O-Lantern Effect.”  It looks shiny at first glance, then you notice the holes.

A deeper look under the surface reveals the hollow insides from Katrina’s wrath that have not yet been healed.  The 9th Ward has yet to have significant repair, save the homes Brad Pitt’s foundation “Make It Right,” and the tell-tale pastel painted homes built by Habitat for Humanity.  On the outside of broken-down buildings you can see spray-painted X’s with notes left by search crews numbering the survivors and bodies found after Katrina.  A large barn we saw was painted with the note, “We’ll be back. Do not tear down.” But 6 years later it looks like they’re still not back.  Other homes have been completely razed and the owners have simply walked away from their property and relocated.  Others still didn’t even bother with tearing down their destroyed homes.  They simply took whatever they could salvage from their flooded homes and walked away.  That’s the Jack-O-Lantern Effect.  New homes and rebuilding on the surface while the inside decays, just praying for groups of people to descend and make their mark toward healing the Big Easy.

Whenever I look at the overgrown or cleaned bare lots of the 9th Ward, I wonder how much it would really take to rebuild this amazing city.  So I asked our tour guide, who told us that with the dwindling of tour groups over the last 6 years, if we keep coming in the same numbers as right now, we will be finished with the rebuild by the year 2036. 

One other site always stirs my emotions, no matter how many times I have seen it.  Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue on Canal Blvd. in Lakeview…or what’s left of it.  The doors are sealed, the disrepair is visible from the outside, and the letters above the sealed entrance doors are barely legible.  They say, va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8).  The “them” referred to in the book of Exodus is the Israelites, and when we look at this sanctuary that was destroyed by an act of God, it begs the question: “Where was God dwelling during Hurricane Katrina?”  It is the answer to this question that makes me emotional.  You see, God was in the people of another congregation across the city.  Congregation Gates of Prayer, led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, one of the unsung heroes of the flood’s aftermath, opened its doors and hearts to Beth Israel.  This Reform congregation in Metairie invited their displaced brethren in, kashered their kitchen so it could be used by both communities, gave them a place to hold services, and even gave them a piece of land on which they would build their new building.  Rabbi Loewy has been a model of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and continues to be an exemplar of the Talmudic dictum, “all [Jews are] responsible for one another” (B. Shavuot 39a).  In the words of Rabbi Koren, “None of those lists of great rabbis are worth a thing until Rabbi Loewy tops them all.”

New Orleans is truly an amazing city.  The music is infectious, the food is incredible, and the people are the salt of the earth.  The Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico make for two gorgeous coasts, and even the swampy marshlands are beautiful and serene.  It’s hard to describe, but something about the Big Easy seeps into my soul and keeps me wanting to go back as soon as I leave.  After four years of running this trip, we have our habits and our favorite places to go.  Rabbi Koren and I are getting to know the area and some of the people.  We know the story of the weeks and months that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet something struck me this time that has never happened before.  Or perhaps the reverse of that is true—something did not happen that has happened I the past.

This year there was a palpable lack of locals thanking us for being there.  Of course people thanked us.  The organizations we worked with (The New Orleans Mission, Common Ground, and Habitat for Humanity) clearly appreciate the work we do.  But they are immersed in the effort to rebuild New Orleans.  They are reminded every day of how important it is to be there building, cleaning, planting, and feeding those in need. 

The difference came from the people at restaurants, on the street, and in the hotel who ask what we are doing with all these teens.  In the past when we have explained what we are doing there with all those kids, the response has been effusive gratitude.  “Thank you so much for coming here to help our city.” “New Orleans really appreciates your help.” “The work y’all are doing is so important to us.” The comments from the typical native helped to drive home to our teenagers exactly what they were doing.  They weren’t just there to buy trinkets and t-shirts or ogle the drunken revelers (from whom we keep them away).  They were there to do something incredibly important to every person they passed on the street, and just about every person made a point to stop and tell us.

This year they didn’t do that.  When people asked what our trip was for and I explained, “We’re here to help with the post-Katrina rebuilding effort,” one person (with a New Orleans accent) actually asked me why!  I told him there is still a lot of damage that needs to be repaired, and he cocked his head and said, “Well, have fun, y’all!”

The first time someone genuinely thanked us was Saturday night, and I was the only person who heard it.  I explained to a woman why we were here, and she thanked us and explained to me that she runs a hotel downtown.  I asked where she was in 2005, and she said she got out and went to a cousin in Alabama.  She shouted a little of her story to me over the Beatles’ music at Rock N’ Bowl, then she went to her friends and I went back to the teens.

Once again the Jack-O-Lantern Effect was in action.  So much of the surface has been cleaned up that people don’t remember how important it is to fix the damage that is still left over.  The travel groups have slowed down—maybe they are helping in other places in the world in need of attention, but New Orleans still needs us.  That’s why Rabbi Koren and I try to bring so many kids year after year.  If they are aware for just a moment of how important it is to look beneath the surface, they will continue to strive to rebuild the world, to do acts of Tikkun Olam in New Orleans, wherever they live, whatever cities need them.

You can’t spell Tikkun Olam without “NOLA,” and when NOLA gets rebuilt, the good times will surely roll again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Struggles, Problems, and Mistakes

           This week I have watched two on-line videos about the same thing, but expressed in different ways.  The first was from a company called Pinkbat on a web site called simple truths.  In it, Michael McMillan explains that a pink baseball bat from his youth changed his entire perception of reality.  He doesn’t tell the story, but through a series of eye-tricking pictures, he explains that any problem we have is simply an opportunity.  He gives the example of Alexander Fleming, a scientist who found his Petri dishes covered with mold after some time away.  Instead of trashing his data and viewing the mold as a problem, he instead studies it and discovers penicillin.
McMillan explains the concept of perceptual blindness.  This is the idea that allows us to be confused by the picture of the candlestick that looks like silhouettes or the picture that might be and old woman looking forward or a young woman looking away.  We all have the tendency to filter out images and information that we do not want in our brains.  Once we realize the many different ways there are to distinguish things in this world, we become aware of the opportunities that exist if we could open up to them.
Watching videos on line and learning things from the internet can be an amazing experience.  We can learn new ideas and innovative thoughts that nobody has ever thought of before.  Or we can simply learn the lessons from Genesis in a new format. 
In the Torah portion we are reading this week, Jacob is confronted with a perceived problem.  He is on his way to meet his brother Esau.  The last time they saw each other was when Esau promised to kill Jacob, so you could say Jacob isn’t too thrilled about the upcoming meeting.  On the way to meet Esau, he spends the night alone on the bank of the Jabbok River.  He sends his family and servants and flocks and everything on ahead, and he is confronted by a “man,” with whom he wrestles for the entire night.  Now this seems like a big problem, but Jacob uses it as an opportunity.  They wrestle to a standstill, even after the man (who we know is an angel) wrenches Jacob’s hip at the thigh.
Jacob sees a problem, and he wrestles with it.  The word the Torah uses for wrestling is vaye’avek.  It is related to the very word for where he stands, Yabok, the Jabbok River.  He struggles all night, until he comes to a realization.  The angel asks to be let go, and Jacob asks for a blessing.  This is one of those strange moments in the Torah where it doesn’t seem to make sense.  When Jacob asks for a blessing, what should we expect the next words to be? Baruch atah, or may you be granted, something blessing-like.  Instead the angel says, “You will no longer be called jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
The angel teaches Jacob that in order to solve whatever he is struggling with, he needs a new perspective.  The angel lets him know that his struggle is actually a blessing.  It is a blessing that must be acknowledged with a change of name that embodies his new outlook.  Jacob, now Israel, takes this lesson and uses it on the Jabbok as well.  He changes the name from Yabok to Peniel.  Even the place of struggle becomes a place where God’s face can be seen.
The second video I saw was from the TED web site.  If you have never seen a TED video, they are absolutely worth your ten to fifteen minutes per viewing.  They are referred to as “riveting talks by remarkable people,” and there are over 1000 brief videos available for perusing for free.  One of the more recent conversations is by Stefon Harris, who plays a piece with his jazz quartet on the TED stage to prove a point. His thesis is, “There are no mistakes on the bandstand.”  He explains that the way jazz works is through syncopation and improvisation—the sense of rhythm that is unique to jazz, and the ability of the musicians to play off of one another.  It is the second aspect that allows for the idea that there are no mistakes on the bandstand.  If one of the musicians were to play a dissonant note, it could sound awkward and out of place, but only if the other musicians ignore it and play over it.  If instead the others pay attention to it and incorporate it into their own notes, they are turning a potential mistake into beautiful music.
He tells the TED audience that when, as a jazz musician, he hears someone play something different, his job is to “be patient, listen to what is going on, and pull from what is going on around me.  When you do that you inspire the other musicians and they give you more, and gradually it builds.”  In other words, allowing ourselves to work with the challenges life presents us is how we create something bigger than we originally intended.  We are all experts in our own fields.  We think we know everything about whatever it is that we do, and yet there is always someone from whom we can learn.  All we have to do is be in the moment, accept from one another, and let creativity flow.
Back to Jacob.  After his encounter with the angel he does meet his brother.  At first it looks like he is in for another wrestling match.  Esau runs at him, grabs him, falls on his neck and….kisses him, and they both cry.  I don’t believe Jacob could have allowed for his brother’s kiss if he had not encountered the angel first.  Imagine Jacob’s perspective.  He thought Esau wanted to kill him.  He sees Esau running, feels his brother grab hold of him and fall on his neck.  If he was not open to using his brother’s dissonance, he might only be willing to fight.  Instead Jacob and Esau cry in each other’s arms, apparently at peace with one another.  They later are able to bury their father Isaac together.
So whether we learn from Genesis or from the internet, the message still holds.  Throughout life we are presented with struggles.  When we encounter something difficult we have two choices.  We can see it as a problem, as a mistake, and fight against it, or we can pay attention to the possibilities it presents.  We can open ourselves up to new possibilities, and make beautiful music and engender strong connections with others.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


New app available from the Apple App Store: Chai On Chanukah.  It's an interactive holiday app for kids (with some fun stuff for parents looking over the shoulders of their children).

Check it out, and write good reviews, because Martha Stewart's people are reviewing it too, and the more reviews it gets the more likely she will mention it on her site! Boo yah!!