Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Let It Shine

(This article was first published in the Sinai Chronicle, publication of Sinai Reform Synagogue, Leeds)

Jewish holidays are strange, really – topsy turvy if you will. During the bright heat of summer, usually a happy and relaxing time, we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the many ills that have befallen the Jewish people during Tisha b’Av. During the autumn when the wheel of the year spins towards sleepy endings, Rosh haShanah celebrates new beginnings. During Sukkot, we subject our vulnerable selves to the fickle elements of autumn. During the verdant abundance of spring with plenty of fresh foods to enjoy, we honour Pesach with dietary restrictions and contemplations on the meaning of freedom. And now, after a welcome repose offered by the quiet month of Cheshvan, we will find that Chanukkah is not all that different.

In the darkest months, Chanukkah is all about light. On a practical and psychological level, this makes sense. Like other winter festivals such as Christmas and Divali, Chanukkah seeks to uplift sombre spirits by chasing away the gloom. On a spiritual level, however, Chanukkah feels more counterintuitive. During the short days of November and December, many of us feel a natural inclination to ‘cocoon’: to stay inside and retreat from the world. We may feel low on energy and why on earth would we want to go out and share our light?

Yet, this is exactly what Chanukkah wants us to do.

Chanukkah is both the consequence of and contrast to the High Holidays. The High Holidays represent an internal process; both on a personal and collective level. Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur challenge us to look inward and fix what needs fixing. The liturgy of the season affirms our specific covenant with the Eternal and seeks to improve the relationship between the individual Jew and his or her God.
Chanukkah, on the other hand, follows suit on a more external mission. We have received an opportunity to recharge our spiritual batteries over the past holiday season in order to let our light shine in the darker days. Perhaps the High Holidays were the moment to press our own miraculous vats of oil, carefully stashed away to be found when the right moment arrives.

This notion of ‘shining your light’ is known in our rabbinic texts as ‘pirsumei nisa’ – Aramaic for ‘the advertising of the Miracle’. The miracle, of course, being the rededication of the Temple after wresting it out of Antiochus Epiphanes’ Hellenistic hands, and finding one last vat of oil with which the temple Menorah burnt bright for eight whole days.

Chanukkah could have been an inward-looking festival. We could merely have lit candles inside, huddled around our dreidles and gelt and nibbled on hot latkes and sufganiyot in the company of family and friends. Of course, Chanukkah is all those things. But it is also more. Jewish tradition actually mandates that we place our Chanukkiyot in full view off all the world to see: in a door-opening, or – more conveniently – in the windowsill, looking out. After blessings and Maoz Tzur, we light our Chanukkiyot, where the light gathers force each subsequent evening as per the directive of Rabbi Hillel (Bavli Shabbat 21a).
Just as the Menorah in the Temple represented our eternal flame amidst a darkened world, so too do our Chanukkiyot defy the coldness and dark to send out its light. Chanukkah is not just a winter festival but a proud affirmation as well as a mission: of our Jewish identity, culture and faith in the context of the larger world. Having stocked up on spiritual fuel in the preceding months, we are now commanded to spark our wicks and share our light. With this light, we reflect our deepest values that are woven into this season. The belief that every human is created in the Divine Light, the value that every human being should be able to practice their way of life in freedom and the hope for a world of brotherhood where flames of conflict will make way for lights of peace.

Now that’s a miracle worth advertising. Commit to your values, be proud of who you are and let your light shine.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Parashat Vayeshev

Sermon Glasgow Reform Synagogue

Passion and Restraint

Like every good story, B’reishit is assembling the stage for a final drama: the settling of the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt. When the book of Shemot opens, we all know what happens next. ‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph’ (Gen. 1:8) and soon the Israelites are enslaved and embittered by hard labour.
The Joseph Story is a bridge, where adventures of individuals become the fate of nations. Joseph forms the fulcrum between B’reishit and Shemot.

But there is more to Joseph than that. He, like his father Jacob, is a passionate and proud man. But unlike his ancestors, Joseph knows restraint.

Restraint, especially when pertaining to matters of intimacy, is a recurring theme in this part of the Torah. The examples of this are many. Jacob is forced to work another seven years for his beloved Rachel. Reuben fails to restrain himself when he sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Chamor, the son of Shechem fails to practice sexual morality when he rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Judah falls for the wiles of a prostitute who is actually his widowed daughter-in-law claiming her rightful heritage: a child in the name of her deceased husband (Gen. 38).

I am not even listing the many plural marriages of our patriarchs. The Torah’s men are driven on by an internal fire which is their rise and downfall. Is this a concession to human nature then, that the movers and shakers in the world are often unruly in matters of the heart? Certainly, when we look at politicians, pop stars and celebrities, this seems very much the case.

Yet Joseph manages to practice restraint.

Joseph’s restraint in a way seems unexpected. Joseph is a proud young boy, handsome and arrogant. A dreamer, he conjures up visions of grandeur, soliciting the contempt and hatred of his hot-headed brothers. Joseph seems doomed to make all the mistakes of his impulsive and manipulative father Jacob. Will he rashly execute his vision of grandeur? Or will he bind himself with the silver cords of conscience?
We know what happens next. His brothers throw him in a pit, almost killing him, and selling him into slavery. The terse narrative of the Torah says nothing about how Joseph reacted. Did he fight them off? Did he try to run away? Did he wail with fear and misery, pounding his fists against the muddy walls of the pit? Maybe already then, Joseph was turning from a dreamer into a visionary and willed himself to silence.

Joseph finds himself in Egypt, at Pharaoh’s court. He is bought by a courtier named Potiphar who ‘took a liking to Joseph’ (Gen. 39:4). The young entrepreneur becomes successful. And as often happens with good-looking and successful men, he draws the eye of the mistress of the house.

I imagine a tantalising scene. Joseph is young and aware of his appeal. He is a golden boy, seventeen years old, full of fire and passion. Potiphar’s wife must have been an aristocratic beauty, dressed in crisp and sheer white linen, her proud head, slender neck and long limbs adorned with gold and lapis lazuli, her eyes encircled with dark kohl. How enticing it would be for a young man, heady with power and privilege and passion, to succumb to her forward advances. ‘Lie with me’, she demands, her voice laced with honey and edged with venom.

He refuses.

We can only imagine the moral fortitude this must have taken. Of course, falling for Potiphar’s wife would have been extremely dangerous. Yet history is littered with examples of death-defying risks taken in the name of love or lust. It is not the risk of punishment or death that stops Joseph. ‘V’eich e’eseh hara’ah hagedolah hazot v’chatati l’Elohim?’ – ‘And how shall I do this great evil and sin before God?’ (Gen. 39:9). Even when Potiphar’s wife pursues him and corners him, he does not relent. She grabs his garment (it seems ironic and telling that Joseph’s clothes figure so prominently in the narrative) but he flees. Scorned, she turns the tables on him and accuses him of rape. When Potiphar’s listens to his wife’s account, he is furious and throws Joseph in jail. Even there, Joseph wills himself silent. Why does he not advocate on his own behalf? Instead, he sits in his dirty and cramped cell and ponders his future.

The young Joseph grows into a discipline and intelligent planner. He keeps his head cool. The foundational stone of the structure of Joseph’s life is his ability to dream and envision. His dreams are not merely passionate or indulgent fantasies but strategic and focused projections of what could be. He is a visionary.
It is Joseph’s visions that allow him to break the chain of familial discord. It is not that he has no emotions; rather he controls them, even when his alienated brothers come down to Egypt to seek his help. Joseph is deliberate; in how he faces the challenge of feeding Egypt during the famine and in how he heals the rifts in his own household. We might not like Joseph, this cocky and precocious child, but we can admire him for the level-headedness with which he shapes his destiny.

Finally, he is rewarded. He too begets two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. And the Joseph story, like any classic, ends happily with a long life lived out in peace, prosperity and love. Joseph’s largest success and greatest legacy lies not in his wealth but in the heritage his restraint and vision bequeathed upon us. It is not for naught that we bless our sons on Shabbat that they may become like Menasheh and Ephraim. After all, they were the first sibling pair who lived in harmony with each other.

It is Joseph’s moral passion coupled with intelligent vision, bound by the cords of restraint that redeems him. Toxic patterns of anger and abuse, of impulse and danger can be broken. Although the Joseph story eventually leads into the physical slavery of our people, its message is ultimately hopeful. No matter how roped in we may be, we need not be slaves of our passions but can be free to serve God with a pure conscience and clear vision instead.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Parashat Vayishlach

Sermon Sinai Synagogue
Parashat Vayishlach
Esther Hugenholtz

Overcoming Our Fears

Like many of the Torah’s characters, Jacob invites feelings of ambivalence on part of the reader. On the one hand, we feel a certain warmth and reference towards him – he is one of our patriarchs, after all.
On the other hand, Jacob elicits a less charitable response as well. He is a perennial trickster, a conman, a thief of birthrights and a breaker of women’s hearts. Does he do justly, we are left to wonder. He dupes his ‘all brawn-but-very-little brain’ brother Esau out of his birthright. Then his uncle Laban tricks Jacob in return. Swapping Leah for his beloved Rachel at his wedding, demanding an extra seven years’ hard labour. Jacob does gets his own back. He in turn swindles Laban. Meanwhile, his wives vie for his attention and clamour for his love. Just as Jacob and Laban have a stand-off through the amount of livestock they can produce, Leah and Rachel, with the help of mandrakes and handmaids engage in a fierce breeding competition of their own.

In short, the Jacob narrative is blighted by avarice and jealousy, pettiness and deception, passive aggression and greed. None of the protagonists involved manage to hold onto higher moral ground. All are less-than-perfect human beings, driven on in search for recognition and validation. The Torah almost seems to warn us: the family unit is not always the safest place to be. Families can be battlefields, cruel and treacherous lands.

Of course, we can explore the dysfunctional dynamics further. We only need to skip back one generation back to the troubling relationships between Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar. There is plenty in the narratives of B’reishit to be ambivalent about.

And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the pain, conflicts and struggles, there is an emotional depth to be found as well. It is easy to dwell on the theme of conflict. After all, conflict reigns supreme and is externalised further when Jacob wrestles the anonymous angel on the bank of the River Jabbok. But what about if we see this parashah in light of overcoming fear?

The pivotal moment, after all, is when Jacob stops running away from what he fears most: the confrontation with his alienated brother. When Jacob is presented with the reality of being reunited with his twin, he is afraid. The Torah states:

“Vayira Ya’acov me’od va’yetzer lo’ – ‘And Jacob became very afraid and was distressed...’ (Gen. 32:8).

A bit further on, the text elaborates his fears as he prays:

“Hatzileini na meyad achi meyad Esav ki yare ani oto” – ‘Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau for I am afraid of him...’ (Gen. 32:12)

It is not hard to imagine what Jacob fears. He fears vengeange and reprisal, he fears inviting violence at the hand of his strong, warrior sibling in retribution of the hurt he caused Esau all those years ago.

What is remarkable is not that Jacob is afraid. On the contrary; it is very unremarkable – and therein lies the key. It is entirely understandable because we would be equally afraid in his position. What is remarkable, however, is how Jacob’s fear transforms him. He could respond in two ways, flight or fight. He could easily retreat into his own emotions, flee the scene, run away, give up on the project of reconciliation. Or he could overcompensate his fears through the age-old strategy of the attack being the best defence. He could choose to attack his brother and his tribe. He could try and hurt him yet again.

But Jacob uses his fear to transform himself.

The Midrash in both Genesis Rabbah and Tanchuma comment on Jacob’s fear and break it down into two components. He was afraid that he would get killed. This clearly is a knee-jerk response of Jacob’s reptilian brain, a logical but amoral conclusion geared towards self-preservation. But interestingly, Jacob’s fear becomes a launching pad for a broader concern. He is equally distressed that he may be killed himself.

Out of Jacob’s darkest night of the soul emerges his first noble sentiment.
This is a man who has always taken, so to say, good care of himself. He is not a violent man; a dweller of tents. But that does not make him wholly good. He has made sure to turn every opportunity to his advantage, through sleight of hand and powers of persuasion. Has Jacob ever looked out for anyone else?
In his fear, then, lies his first selfless act. And so when he prays to the Eternal, he prays on behalf of his brother. ‘Achi’, he says, ‘my brother’. It is superfluous, really. The text could merely have said ‘meyad Esav’, [deliver me from] Esau’. It is his fear that prompts Jacob to reach out and restore a broken relationship, to think of the other, rather than himself. In true Buberian fashion, this is when Esau stops being an ‘It’ but becomes truly ‘Thou’, the wholly humanised Other. For the first time, perhaps, Jacob saw Esau for who he was. Not a brawny fool to deceive nor a wild warrior to run from, but his long lost twin.

It is then that he is given the strength to wrestle the angel – identified by some Midrashim as Esau’s guardian angel – and to seek the angel’s blessing.

Jacob is transformed. And through this, he becomes Israel. And Israel is redeemed.

Is it any wonder that this transformation takes place at a riverbank, a silver ribbon cutting yet binding one liminal moment to another? It is often at borders and boundaries, at the edges of the sea and world that we become changed and better.

Israel’s secret was not his trickery. But rather that he stopped tricking. Not only others, but more importantly, himself. He looked himself hard in the eye and found compassion for others. May we pray that our fears – as dark and debilitating as they can seem – can lead to goodness and healing. Among the brokenness of the relationships of our lives, we can all face our fears, wrestle them to the ground and meet goodness and love all the days of our lives.

Shabbat shalom!