Make of Yourself a Light

Hannukah is a holiday of many layers and stories.  The ancient Book of Maccabees tells us a Hannukah story about a band of heroes (the Maccabees) who defied the oppressive Greek empire when they attempted to force the Jews to abandon their faith.  Somehow, this tiny band of fighters prevailed, the Jews regained control of their sacred Temple and autonomy in their land.  But the war and the Greeks had done considerable damage.  After the victory, the Maccabees had a lot of clean up to do in the Temple sanctuary, which had been seriously defiled.  This “rededication” of the Temple is actually the true meaning of the word, Hannukah.

The Rabbis, who inherited the book of Maccabees and the leadership of the Jewish people many generations later, added a new layer to the Hannukah story.  Rather than emphasizing the story of the battle of the few against the many, they told the story of a miracle of light.

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), when the Maccabees went to rededicate the Temple, they had a problem.  One of the most sacred fixtures of the Temple was something called the eternal light, a light that was never supposed to go out (Leviticus 6:6).  They found among the rubble a single vessel of oil to keep that fire burning – enough for one day.  But it would take another 8 days to produce a new batch of oil to replenish it.

Things looked bad.  I imagine that there may have been some who said it wasn’t worth lighting that fire, using that oil.  It could never be enough.  Time to give up.  But somehow, hope prevailed and they lit the lamp anyway.  Even though they couldn’t see how it was possible.  They used that last bit of oil and gave everything they had, and then a miracle happened.  The light lasted not just one, but eight days and nights, enough for them to produce a supply to keep the fire going long into the future.

Each year on the anniversary of these miracles we light the Hannukah menorah, the Hannukiah, to remember both of these stories. And it’s no coincidence that we tell these stories and light these lights, right at the darkest time of the year.  All around us, darkness seems to grow.  Days get shorter. Nights get longer.  And that’s just the darkness in our physical world. …

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about darkness.  Physical darkness. Political darkness.  Spiritual darkness. And light.

Light – if you might recall – was the first Creation.  Genesis 1:3 – “God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.  God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning – a first day.”

“But wait!” you may say, if you remember what happened next, “How could there be an evening and a morning yet?  The sun, moon and stars weren’t created till the 4th day!  What is the meaning of the term, “day” without the sun?  What could “light” even mean if it isn’t light as we know it on our planet?”

If you were to say this, you would be on to something.

The rabbis of old may not have been astro-physicists, but they were close readers of the Torah and they too wondered what this original ‘light’ might have been if it wasn’t the light of the sun.  Their answers are found in a literary genre known as Midrash, as well as mystical texts such as the Zohar, which tell us that this original primordial light was not just light as we know it.  It was a powerful supernal light that illuminated the vision of the first human being before the fall.  Adam could see from one end of the earth to the other and from one end of eternity to the other.

But when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God became afraid that they might misuse the power of the Great Light, and so it was hidden away until the end of days as a gift for the righteous in the world to come.  As it is written in Psalm  97, Or Zarua Latzadik, the light is sown for the righteous.

In one rather obscure chain of midrash and mystical texts, the secret light is hidden in a jewel called the Tzohar, which is passed from Adam all the way through the generations to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, who takes it to hang in the sanctuary as the first Ner Tamid, the first eternal light.

And if you are thinking – hey that sounds familiar. Yes, it’s the same eternal light that was at the center of the Hannukah story.  It’s also the same eternal light that is a standard fixture in every synagogue. Now, I can’t promise you that the one in our sanctuary was lit from the fires of the first original light of creation, but …symbolically….

You see, it’s not just that a sanctuary needs A Light.  It needs an “eternal” light.  One that never goes out.  One that passes through generations , connecting what we’re doing now to the distant past and future, from the very origin of Being to the World to come.  The eternal light reminds us of the light of goodness and holiness that outlives any single human being.

And I would argue, the Ner Tamid is not only a reminder of goodness and holiness out there in some perfect past or perfect future. The great secret is – that hidden light is hidden within us. The Ner Tamid is a reminder of who we really are. Proverbs 20:27 tells us, “Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam” — the candle of God is the human soul.

It’s a radical idea, really. God is not just our light. We are God’s light.

I think this is one of the great lessons of Hannukah.  Hannukah may fall every year when the nights are longest, but on Hannukah we don’t just sit around in the dark waiting for a miracle.  We light candles.  One by one.  We fight back.  Even against all odds.  And it may not be possible to see exactly how that bottle of oil is going to be enough, but on Hannukah we take those first steps towards redemption from wherever we are – even in the darkest of places.

If where we are is a desecrated altar and a single jar of oil, we go ahead and light it anyway and trust that God will meet us half way.  We take the steps we can.  Hannukah teaches us that it is worth it.  In the famous words of Pirke Avot, Lo alecha hamelakha ligmor…. It is not up to you to finish the work, velo atah ben horin lehibatel mimenu – but neither are you free to desist from it.

So. If you find yourself or your community or your country or your world in some kind of darkness, you don’t have to rededicate the Temple all by yourself – but you do have to find your own way to participate.  Each year we teach ourselves through the lighting of the candles, do not despair.  Do not despair.  The light is coming.  Do not despair.  Find your way. Find your candle.  Even one candle can fill a room with light.  Each night, the light will grow. As Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” now is the time to ‘make of yourself a light.’

Journies Not Taken Alone

(When I originally gave this talk on November 12th 2016, it coincided with a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.  I have left in references to the girl we celebrated that morning, though her name has been changed.)

This week in Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah narrows its focus from all of creation, to all of humanity, to one particular lineage – Abraham’s lineage.

It’s a lineage that we claim as Jews.  Abraham is our forefather.  But it is also a lineage claimed by the other two great monotheistic faiths. Abraham is the father of Christians.  Abraham is the father of Muslims.  His descendants are indeed as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dust of the earth, as God promises him this week over and over again.

But when it all begins, it seems to be just Abraham.  And as Emily will explore later on, it’s probably a call happening deep within Abraham that might not be easy for him to follow at first.   A call into unknown territory.  A call within one person’s heart and mind.

And then there is the promise.  Faithful as he is, even Abraham has trouble believing, (childless and in his nineties) that this promise of fathering many nations can come true.  It seems impossible. Abraham expresses his doubts to God, “Oh God, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless? …” God takes him outside and says, “Look to the heavens and count the stars if you can – so shall be your descendants…” (Genesis 15:2).

The question is how?  How can we go from a still small voice within Abraham’s one human heart to a lineage as numerous as the stars?

One answer unfolds in the soap opera of Abraham’s family.  Miracle children born to his wife and her maid servant in his old age.  But there is also another moment that is easy to miss in all of that drama.

Right after Abraham (then Avram) hears God’s call, we read, “Avram went forth as God had commanded him and Lot went with him. Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran. Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son, Lot, and all the wealth they had amassed and the souls that they had made in Haran and they set out for Canaan,” (Gen. 1:4-5).

From the very beginning, you see, Abraham was not alone.

As much as our culture likes to focus on rugged individuals and think of solitary heroes, Abraham was not alone.  He took his closest family.  But also, there is that curious line, “the souls that they had made in Haran.”  Who are those people?  What does that mean? Traditional Jewish commentaries explain that these are converts.  Even before Abraham went out on his journey, he had somehow managed to start bringing other people along with him.

Other portraits of Abraham in the Torah and Midrashic legends talk about how his tent was always open.  Next week’s parashah begins with a story of Avram and Sarai rushing around to greet and host angelic strangers with the most generous hospitality.  In mystical Jewish tradition, Abraham is associated with loving kindness.  He is the Patriarch of the open heart.

No wonder his lineage was destined to grow.

Yes it was a line of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters.  But it was also, all along, those souls he was making by bringing other outsiders into his tent and making them feel welcome and loved.

Why do I think this is important right now?

Well I notice that those numerous descendants still haven’t figured out how to get along and feel like one family yet. All over the world, groups of Abraham’s children are killing each other and whole nations are talking about shutting each other out with walls and borders, dissolving cooperative agreements — no open tent flaps here.

These months leading up to the election have been poisonous.  No matter who won, about half of our country was going to spend this past week in a state of horror and dismay.

I’m still surprised it was my half.  And even though I’m not ready yet to try to open my tent and reach out like Abraham, I do think it’s a good time to remember him.  How he set out with hope on a journey into the unknown and didn’t try to do it alone.  How he gathered and traveled with his circles of loved ones, and even made new souls to come along.  It’s a good time to remember how even Abraham was full of doubt and yet put one foot in front of the other, trusting in a vision of the stars in the heavens that he knew he would never live to see himself.

Emily, I wanted to be able to stand up here with you today and celebrate your joyous moment in a very different context.  I was imagining us being able to connect the dots between the work you are doing for girls around the world with your girls’ club at school and the first female American President elect.  Those hopes were not meant to be.

Instead we celebrate you in a context that, to many of us, is considerably darker and more worrisome.  We send you into adulthood as a light, but we send you at dusk and not at dawn.

Which reminds me…The past few mornings, I have noticed something more than I usually do.  Despite my doubts and fears, without any effort on my part at all, surprisingly, thankfully, beautifully – the sun has risen, day after day.  And in those days, I have been having some remarkable conversations which give me hope.  Conversations which remind me – I do not have to make this journey alone.

Emily, today I want to remind you and all of us – even in times of darkness and challenge, even when you are scared or doubtful, even if your hopes seem impossible, you have your family and your community around you. You are not alone.

So I have been having these amazing conversations this week.  The first was Wednesday morning as I dropped off my son in his San Francisco JCC preschool class.  His teachers are a white woman, a black woman, a Latina woman, and a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.

All these months I have been thinking how much I cherish them.  All these months I have been thinking to myself what a gift it is that my son will grow up forming those sweet loving feelings we all have about our preschool teachers, and his sweet loving idealizing feelings will be formed around these very different women.  Women entrusted to teach him what you teach at Preschool – listening, creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and above all, loving.

I started to choke as I tried to express this to these women and we found ourselves all hugging one another in tears as one by one they confessed to me how afraid they feel right now.  Since then, I have felt so much closer to them all, and I have wondered to myself why it took this moment for me to be able to tell them how much I appreciate them.

Wednesday evening another amazing conversation took place.  I called Or Shalom to gather and make a safe space to respond to the election for all who could come.

More than 50 of us sat in a big circle and shared from the heart, passing between us a stone I brought from Jerusalem with one word engraved on it – Ometz – courage.

We talked of courage, and fear, hope, despair.  One lesbian woman worried that her marriage could be dissolved under a transformed Supreme Court.  One man shared his insights after reading a book called, “How the Jews became White” and urged us to use our unique position as a white minority to reach out to the white community who spoke so loudly in this election. A child encouraged us all to find ways to express our love and remember the goodness in our lives.  Some spoke of family and friends who had voted differently than they, and the challenge of engaging in any kind of dialogue when there seems to be so little common agreement about what is true, what is real, and what matters.  People expressed the need to listen more deeply and seriously to people unlike themselves.   Many suggested that action is the best antidote to despair.

After the gathering one man told me that he had been having atrial fibrillation symptoms since the election returns had started coming in, and during the meeting, his heart finally calmed down.  Being together helps.  It really does.

Since then in so many brief moments with friends and acquaintances, other parents at drop off I’ve never met before, the conversations have been blooming.  Real conversations of substance.

What are we afraid of?  What have we been taking for granted? What are the issues we care about most? What does it mean to be an American in 2016?  The specifics of what each person said are beginning to fade now for me, but the feeling has not faded.  I am not alone.

Yet in all of these San Francisco conversations I have been aware that eventually, as the feelings subside and the shock wears off, those conversations need to move beyond our little progressive bubble.

We need to start listening a lot more deeply to the people we have been dismissing and open those tent flaps a lot wider.  It has not worked to talk only to ourselves and call our fellow citizens names.  It has not been responsible to tune out the channels that spread a completely different world view to so many fellow Americans.   Right as we may be, (or not!), that rightness didn’t convince enough people on election day, and we need to learn how to talk to them respectfully.

AND at the same time…

We need to let this moment call us to organize around the values and policies that we cherish most — and fight for them. We need to put aside our high-minded lefty squabbles and stop the factionalizing and come together.  We need to be methodical and patient and strategic and persistent. Once the mourning period ends, it will be time to analyze, organize and act.

The past two weeks I have been standing up here talking about despair and hope in the Torah.  God’s despair to see the potential for evil in humanity.  The despair of the rabbis who agreed – perhaps it would have been better for human beings not to have been created.

These weeks I have tried to convince you that in spite of it all, we still have to resist that despair and find in our most difficult challenges the chance to live lives of purpose.  As the rabbis teach in Pirke Avot, Lo Alecha hamelacha ligmor, It is not up to you to complete the work, velo atah ben horin lehibatel mimena, but neither are you free to desist from it.

All that time I thought I was talking about the reasons to vote and make the last push for the election.  But maybe I was just hedging my bets.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so discouraged about the state of our Democracy. Today I need those messages of hope more than I did last week, that’s for sure.

And yet, as I told my 3 year old son this week, sometimes you lose.  And then, even if you are very disappointed and very angry, you still have to get up and be the best person you can be.  You still have to do your best to be good.

Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to wake up.

America in the early 21st century is not Germany in the 1930s, but it could be — if we let our disappointment paralyze us.  The Jewish people and humanity as a whole have been through much worse than losing an election in a democracy where hatred may be rising but protections are still strong.  Now is the time to look around and gather ourselves, to make more souls and begin a great journey, together.