It is hard to believe, but Pesach is upon us, with Yom HaShoah and Israel Independence Day soon to follow. We make our way on our calendar, from these holidays, through the counting period to Shavuoth. Their rapid fire succession has sparked these thoughts–
There is a wonderful hymn that we sing at the end of the Passover Seder, in the English, “Who knows One.” It teaches us of two and three and four, etc, just like the succession of holy times in our Jewish calendar. Let me explain. An insightful sage asks the question, "Why is it that the second verse and the tenth verse are so similar? After all, the refain for two tells us it's the two tablets of law, and the tenth verse, asking "who knows ten?" answers it's the Ten Commandments. Aren't they really the same thing? The tablets are the Ten Commandments! How is it that the author of the hymn could have been so repetitive?
The sage answers his question by saying that they are not the same. The two tablets of law refer not to the two tablets of one set, the Ten Commandments, but the two sets of tablets of law. The first tablets were smashed when Moses saw the golden calf. He went up again to get a second set! The second verse celebrates the phenomenon of second chances in Judaism–the ability of a people to recognize its mistakes and to get a second break from the God of Israel. God is always willing to give us a second chance.
Thinking more deeply about this, however, the coming of the Israelites into the land from Egypt was actually a second chance as well, for Abraham had dwelled there, but the people needed to pass through the “furnace of fire” to become a people of character and unity. Jacob went down to Egypt, a second return. But wait a minute, that too was followed by a blown chance. The first generation muffed it when they heeded the pessimism of the spies and were condemned to die in the desert. One could say that the second generation of freed Hebrews getting in was the third chance that God bestowed on them. Unfortunately, that effort, too, was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple. We were granted yet a fourth opportunity when Cyrus and Darius got us back to the Holy Land and we built yet a second national home. Alas, the Romans exiled the Judaen State in 70Ce and quashed its rebirth in 135 Ce, during the era of Bar Kochba.
Now along came a fifth chance, granted by Heaven. It started with a dream, in the book The Alte Neue Land, written by Theodore Herzl, more than a century ago. Many make the point that this effort was driven not by heaven above, but by people from below. The Zionist Movement organized, and a society in the making emerged by the hard work of statesmen, philanthropists, industrialists, scientists, dreamers and followers that made facts on the ground. Herzl said “if one wills it, it is not a dream.”
Now we stand 70 years in the aftermath of that fifth opportunity, granted to us by the dedicated, brazen and innovative Israeli population. Beset by adversity, Israel has become a military power and entrepreneurial, technological society. She has emerged as a world leader in medical, botanical, technological and scientific achievement. She stands poised to share her know-how with the world around her, and I believe is diplomatically prepared for compromise with a Palestinian leadership that will give up its dream of dismantling the Jewish State. This fifth opportunity is one that all of us should share by visiting Israel and supporting her. Israel has made mistakes, as has all nations. The rebirth of a national existence has its share of complicating elements and moral challenges. But we should be unbelievably proud of the State of Israel as she stands on the precipice of 70 years. May the Zionist State go from attainment to attainment, aided by the support of nations of good will. She has only just begun to share of her bounty and be the light unto nations that is her mission. (Stay tuned for more on the celebration of the 70th anniversary in the coming month).
Purim will soon be upon us, beginning February 28th, when we will read from the Megilla. We will also read early Thursday morning, and all are invited on Thursday, following the service, to join Rabbi at Bagel Boss in enjoying a bagel breakfast.
Drinking on Purim: do so with caution and moderation
It is well known that there is a statement in the Talmud that encourages Jewish folks to celebrate Purim not only with festive meal, but also with drinking, even to the point of intoxication. The way the Talmud puts it, Chayav Adam levasame, “A person is obligated to become inebriated to the point of not knowing (adsheloyada) the difference between “Cursed it is Haman and blessed Mordecai.” Some in the sources and codes through the ages have taken this at face value.
However, a closer look at sources shows this to be foolhardy and dangerous behavior. One sees, in the Esther story of the Megillah, the dangers of drinking. It is because Ahashverush is a partier and a lush that he cedes actual governing control to others, which almost dooms an entire population.
The story that follows Rabba’s suggestion in the Talmud to “party hearty” is what is most telling. Rabbah travels to celebrate Purim with Rabbi Zeira. In an inebriated state he slaughters Rabbi Zeira, presumably mistaking him for a cow! In the morning, when he realizes what he had done, he prays for Zeira's resuscitation, which miraculously happens. The next year Rabbah invites Rabbi Zeira over again. Rabbi Zeira, however, declines, saying “miracles don’t always happen.” Maybe this means that Rabbah almost killed his guest with strong drink, or it means he actually attacked him in a drunken state. Either way, we learn that drinking may well get you to the point where Haman wanted you–dead. The meaning of this follow up story is to drink, not recklessly, but in moderation. Either one can die of binge drinking or end up killing somebody.
Autonomy and Equal rights
December 28 passed without much notice, but on the Jewish calendar, it was observed as a fast day–one of four–commemorating a significant aspect of the Babylonian occupation and destruction, in 586 BCE, of Judaea, the remaining Israelite national entity. In this case, on the 10 of Teveth, Nebuchadnezer surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem. It took two and a half years, but eventually that siege would lead to the attack on the city and the destruction of the first Temple. With it would go Jewish sovereignty and autonomy for some 400 years, until the successful victory of the Hashmoneans from the Seluicid Greeks in 165 BCE. Alas, Jerusalem would not be a pure autonomous state for long. Soon, the Romans resumed a custodial rule until the Second Temple (which has been rebuilt in the Persian period of Ezra, in the 5th century) was also razed to the ground by Titus. Judaea's inhabitants exiled to other places in the Roman Empire or escaped into the western or northern Jewish communities, such as Yavneh, Lod, Tiberius, Caesaria, Tzefad, Tzipori and others. What that initial conquest meant for Jews, however, was a loss of sovereignty and national autonomy, which was not fully restored until 1948, when the international community gave sanction to the nation of Israel–the fulfillment of a national homeland, expressing a long-suppressed right to national self determination. The Jewish people once again, after two millennia, were given the equal rights of a people represented in a nation state.
70 years after that momentous event in world history, the Trump administration recognized Israel's right to determine its own capital, representing yet another important milestone. This was a reckoning of the reality on the ground, as Israel's national infrastructure is all located in Jerusalem. The capital is located within the green line, an area that Israel captured in the defensive War of Independence, when five nations attacked her upon the UN announcement of its legitimacy. And it is located in an area that was a part of the partition plan of the Jewish State of 1947 by the United Nations. The western section of Jerusalem has been in Israel’s hands for seventy years. While the Partition Plan accepted by the Yishuv leadership–and rejected by the Arab leadership– included the concept of an internationally administrated Jerusalem, with all religious sites under neither Arab nor Israeli sovereignty. In view of the virulent efforts of terror and intimidation from 1948-1967, when the eastern quadrant was in Jordanian hands, this arrangement is ill-advised and counter to Israel’s security obligations to its inhabitants. Nor is it feasible that Judaism’s most sacred sites, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount be removed from from Israeli sovereignty, especially in view of the UN Security Council Resolution (sadly accepted without veto by the Obama administration). These were the very areas where Jordanians regularly took pot shots at the western side of Jerusalem, destroyed synagogues and used Jewish gravestones for a pathway to their Intercontinental Hotel. The notion that these precious holding be surrendered to a future State of Palestine after Israel’s sacrifice in a defensive war to capture them is frankly morally and religiously untenable to Israel. Israel is committed to the status quo–equal access to all religious worship in mosque and church in all of the walled city, and to religious autonomy in administering the sites, so long as such activities are not harmful or malevolent in nature.
How do we deal with the Chanukah candles when Chanukah falls on Shabbat, and what can we learn from this? I thank Noam Zion for bringing this theme up in a recent teaching. The halacha, of course, is that we light the Chanukah candles before the Shabbat candles and before sundown; and on Havdalah Saturday night, the Havdalah candle before the Chanukah candles. Why? Because once we bring in Shabbat we mustn't kindle fire, even if it’s before sundown. And conversely, we should officially bring out Shabbat before lighting our chanukiah even if it’s after starlight. In this regard, one could say that Shabbat is more important. But on the other hand, we learn something symbolic as well. We learn that on Chanukah, Pirsum Hanisa, the broadcast of the miracle, is important as well– So important that it must burn into Shabbat and that it must continue uninterrupted almost after Shabbat.
What was the miracle of Chanukah and what do her candles teach us? The miracle was that a little cruz of oil burned far longer than expected. But it was far broader than that. It was that a people that others glibly expected would not survive through the Greco-Roman era continued to burn brightly and vitally. We celebrate the inner fire of the Jewish people and the Jewish individual that will never be extinguished. It represents the fierce and fiery identity of the Jew that cannot be snuffed out. Why is the holiday 8 days, asked the Berdichever Rebbe, when the oil lasted miraculously only for seven days? After all, it was supposed to last for only a day! Answer: we light eight candles because of another long lasting candle, the candle of the Jewish soul, the candle for the Jewish people–the Jewish nation that burns and will not cease from this earth.
Candles and fires though, draw from around them. A flame cannot be sustained in a vacuum–it will be snuffed. It draws on the oxygen around it. Similarly, every Jewish society has incorporated some of the vitality of the cultures it has inhabited. One only need look at the Roman-style synagogues, the Roman togas in Judaic artwork, the wording on synagogues like Dura Europa in Greek, and the incorporation of the mosaic zodiac tile floors in synagogues of Northern Israel. The Middle Ages saw the development of Ladino, an Italian Spanish language, and the development of Yiddish, a Middle German language. Maimonides introduced ideas of Aristotle into Jewish Philosophy and Jewish curricula in the Sephardic Golden age incorporated mathematics and science through the 1400s. A Jewish modern nation and a Jewish modern community incorporates and develops the latest technological and medical advances. Assimilating the best of the outside is not, in its own right, harmful. Important is how it is channeled. Will the outside influence be used toward the vitalization of Judaism or will it be utilized as an exit ramp from it? That is the real question. Each generation is called upon to put new wine in old vessels. Each generation is charged with treasuring the old but never standing still, adding a new layer that resonates.
The Shabbat candles celebrate the inner light of a strong Jewish family, but the Chanukah candles broadcast publically our pride and our strength to remain vibrant even as we become a part of a greater community. The lights of Chanukah broadcast that Jews and Judaism shall always be a driving force in their own destiny, and in so doing, be a light unto the nations. As we gaze at the candle fire at Chanukah, remember the burning flame of the tenacious Jewish heart that holds on to the core of Jewish practice and Jewish faith. And as Conservative Jews, may we also remember to not become hermetically sealed and static. May we never neglect the importance of breathing, growing and evolving our Judaism so that it speaks to us in the era and place we inhabit, balanced with both fire and oxygen, the light of our soul burning still brighter–and to this let us say Amen.