Today is one of my family’s favorite days of the year. In addition to being my partner’s half birthday, December 22 is the day after the winter solstice. Which means, the days are officially getting longer. My kids woke up this morning, got dressed, and ran downstairs singing, “Light is returning, even though it is the darkest hour…no one can hold back, back the dawn.” Then they started playing dreidel and remarked it still feels like Hanukkah. This might be related to the fact that we have not yet put away our menorahs. Partly because it's been a busy week and partly because until the days were getting longer, we needed the reminder.
This, as it turns out, is a core human need. So core, even the first human being, Adam HaRishon, had this experience.
In Masechet Avodah Zara (8a),
Our sages taught: When Adam saw that the days were getting shorter, they said: "Oy, I did the wrong thing and therefore the World is getting darker and is returning to chaos. Death has been decreed upon me!"
This midrash recounts the very first human’s encounter with the very first winter. The days just keep getting shorter and they think it’s their fault. Even more so, they fear it's irreversible. Existentially asking, what if light never returns?
The midrash continues, “Adam HaRishon therefore spent 8 days fasting and praying. As they finished their fast, Adam saw that the days were getting longer. They realized that maybe the days waxed and waned throughout the year. And they were relieved. So the following year, Adam celebrated the end of the shortening days with 8 days of celebration…”
This is yet another tale intended to answer the question the Talmud asks in Masechet Shabbat, “Why Hanukkah!?” It is also an affirmation of my own kid’s spiritual instincts. Even when Hanukkah and the Solstice don’t quite align, there is a human instinct to celebrate the light lasting a little bit longer on December 22. To honor that we have made it through the rigor of waning days.
I offer you this long slender poem as a belated Hanukkah gift, with gratitude to Rabbi Mó who shared it with me.
How the light comes by Jan Richardson
I cannot tell you
how the light comes.
What I know
is that it is more ancient
That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.
That it loves
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain…
I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the blessed light
Maybe you spin the dreidel tonight, maybe you don’t. But either way, I invite you to savor the extra minutes of day, the diminishing darkness, and to remind yourself that light is returning. May we trust that the light is seeking out what the pain and peril that is so present. And may we have the courage to turn ourselves toward it.
Please indulge me, in the final moments of Hanukkah, to squeeze in just a bit more Hanukkah torah.
There is a very practical disagreement about Hanukkah to which I am very endeared. What makes more sense: Lighting one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and then adding a candle each night until there are 8? Or lighting 8 candles on the first night and then taking away one candle each night until there is only 1 left?
Well on the one hand, it is spiritually satisfying for the candles to increase corresponding to the magnitude of the miracle that the oil lasted. But on the other hand, the amount of oil functionally decreased with each passing night until there was none left.
This very debate is recorded in Masechet Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud. There it is understood that Beit HIllel corresponds the number of candles to the outgoing days (the ones we have already observed) while Beit Shammai corresponds the number of candles to the incoming days (the ones we have left).
The disagreement of Hillel and Shammai is understood as “for the sake of heaven,” which is to say it is generative conflict, which has lasting positive value. For those who are less familiar with the significance of these two houses of thought, check out this very helpful Wikipedia entry.
Most often in their arguments, both are right and reasonable. And yet almost always, almost everyone, almost everywhere follows the practice of Beit Hillel. Which has led my rebellious spirit to naturally align myself with Beit Shammai. It feels a bit like rooting for the underdog.
But recently my teacher called me on it. We were having an argument and she said, stop being shammai for a moment and try being Hillel. Her words pierced and challenged me in an important way. For years I have not appreciated the difference between them had less to do with the legal reasoning and more to do with how they communicate their beliefs.
In Masechet Eruvin, the Talmud makes clear that both houses were teaching divinely ordained truths. But there were some important differences. Namely that Beit Hillel was kind and gracious, and taught Beit Shammai alongside their own ideas, often teaching them first.
So in that spirit, my teacher challenged me to articulate and advocate for her idea before my own as a way to show that I really heard and respected her. To be totally honest, I couldn’t do it. And that hurt us both.
It is hard for me to be kind and gracious when I feel activated and defensive, and especially so when I feel I am right. So this Hanukkah I have returned to the words of Yehudah Amichai,
“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard…”
As a person who loves flowers, this is motivating. But wait, there is more…
Menachem Fisch explains, “The Hillelite position is endorsed, the Talmud explains, because, unlike the Shammaites, they were נוחין which means flexible, as opposed to dogmatic – i. e. wary of being wrong and willing to change their mind. But that is not enough. The Hillelites knowingly coupled their flexibility, with עלובין, a willingness to be proven wrong by others; not only flexible, but open to criticism.”
As this terrible war persists, we are being challenged to have divisive conversations. I am not saying that there are two right sides to this war or any war. But I do think we are called to be in deep relationships with people we may not agree with. I am personally struggling to do so with the grace and compassion our tradition calls us to. I am finding it helpful to enter these conversations with these two guiding values: being willing to change my mind and being open to criticism.
This Hanukkah, I lit all our menorahs in the spirit of Beit Hillel, wIth the hopes that I may learn how to have more generative conflict with the people I love, if not for my own sake, then for the sake of heaven.
I encourage you to listen to this Jewish Currents episode “Talking to your family” as it ”explores questions of when it is our obligation to keep arguing, and when it’s better to take a break—or give up completely. And what this moment says about the future of Jewish American institutional life.”
On Monday morning I received an email from Makom Community, where my kids go for Jewish enrichment two afternoons a week. It began, “I have sad news to share. Over the weekend, our store front windows on Sansom Street were graffitied with the words “Free Palestine” and another graffiti tag.”
The email itself was full of care. I am so grateful to Beverly Socher-Lerner and the entire staff at Makom for their graceful leadership during this time. Makom’s response was beautiful. Their team of educators met and they created signage to hang over the graffiti which says, “We all deserve peace and safety. Happy Chanukah. Let your light shine.” I felt both proud and comforted to know my kids would walk into that learning space and be greeted by those words.
I was startled by the incident. I thought of Kol Tzedek’s windows and the vulnerability of moving into our own building in this climate of increased antisemitism. I was deeply comforted when CAIR-Philadelphia, one of our organizing partners, posted this in response to the vandalism at Makom:
“CAIR-Philadelphia decries and stands firmly against recent defacing of Makom Community in Center City, Philadelphia. We extend solidarity and support to the Jewish community of Makom Community and the families of the childcare center they house.
“Targeting Jewish institutions or defacing their property for the actions of the IDF and the right-wing Israeli government is antisemitic and contrary to the values of those who seek freedom and dignity for Palestinians. It also does not do justice to the many Jewish community members who are actively working on the frontlines of the #CeasfireNow movement.”
This statement made me feel safer and seen. It does not however transform the truth that there is antisemitism on the left and on the right, in our city and in the U.S. Congress. This continues to scare me and makes it hard to trust. I care so deeply about Jewish safety. I care so deeply about Jews and Judaism. It is what I breathe and maybe even why I breathe.
In many ways I understand that the profound divisions amongst Jews, and the differences in our political responses to this moment, all source from the same core human need to feel safe in this world.
The vandalism at Makom immediately returned me to a very ancient argument about Hanukkah. There is a debate in the Talmud about the core mitzvah of Hanukkah. Some argue it is the lighting of the menorah, after all the blessing concludes “L’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah” which would suggest the essential spiritual practice is to light the hanukkah candles.
Others argue it is not just the lighting of the menorah, but also and most importantly, doing so publicly in a way that pirsumei nisa - publicizes the miracle. For this reason the Talmud teaches that the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles should be performed “between sunset and the time when feet disappear from the marketplace” (b. Shabbat 21b). Which is to say in public at a time when people are around to see it. This is a bold spiritual instruction that reorients our potential responses to antisemitism and unsafety.
Even in a moment where antisemitism and Islamophobia are present threats in our communities, where our Jewish institutions are being vandalized and our Muslim neighbors fear for their lives, we are instructed to publicly light our menorahs and spread hope.
The rabbis do take some precaution and advise that in times of extreme danger we can move the menorah from the public square to our window, and if needed to an even more discreet location. It is hard to be Jewish in public at this time for so many different reasons. If this feels appropriate to you this year, I hope you will trust yourself and feel supported by the wisdom of Jewish tradition.
There is something very visible about being Jewish at Hanukkah. It is an offering of hope we make not just to ourselves, but to each other and to our neighbors too. Even more so, it provides an ancient Jewish vision of safety that points us towards interdependence, towards courage and towards one another.
This week has been defined by new life, having just officiated at the Bris of our newest member Isaiah Raphael Joffee (Mazal Tov Aviva!). This week has been defined by the death of several member’s grandparents and more than one difficult cancer diagnosis, constant reminders that we are mortal, that life is fragile.
This week has also been defined by the slow drip of hope, with the release of 110 Israeli hostages and 240 Palestinian political prisoners. If you are like me, you have tracked the release of every single person. I have studied the faces of 4 year old Abigail Edan and 22 year old Ahed Tamimi. I keep returning to the images of them embracing their families. I am focused on their eyes. The hurt they harbor. The long road to healing ahead of them. The sounds of war all around them.
I am struggling to digest so much violence and injustice. I keep returning to prayer. What does it mean to pray for peace in a time of war? What might make our prayers effective?
A teacher shared with me a teaching of the great 18th century Hasidic rebbe, Noam Elimelech. It begins, “It is known that a tzaddik’s prayer is answered when praying for a sick person or for others in need. But why? … Why is a tzaddik’s prayer more effective than the prayer of any other person?”
To which he explains,
“This is because a tzaddik loves both God and every person in the world….Most people are not like this…Only a tsaddik who loves everyone has that power.”
I am struck by this ancient aspiration to love God so fully that we actually love absolutely everyone. When we open our hearts fully to the Holy One or Holiness, we are reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness to all life. And when we pray from that place, transformation is possible.
In the words of the poet Cathy Cohen, When Sorrows Come,
…I once dreamed of starlings
flying in patterns,
pulled to each other,
yet with space to maneuver
when threatened by hawks,
by danger. But lately I’m dreaming
of others who suffer – those close
and strangers, whose souls
we must touch
so prayers might flow more quickly from our lips
when sorrows come, when joys –
when sorrows come.
May we have the courage to try to love every person so fully that our prayers for peace and healing flow more quickly and are answered immediately.
Here are two spiritual resources that brought me comfort this week. A new Let My People Sing! Playlist and this beautiful dvar Torah by Ms. Ezra Furman.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.