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I will be there Parshas Shemos

Es chato’ai ani mazkir hayom.

I am going to share something I am a little ashamed of, but I think it’s rather instructive, so I am going to swallow my pride.

This took place in 2013, I had just started at Ner Tamid. I remember exactly where I was standing when I took the call I am bout to describe. It was from a member of the shul who had recently lost a loved one. They had not asked me to officiate the funeral – I was new to the shul, and I didn’t really know them and that was just fine. However, I did not attend the funeral. Not only that, I did not attend the shiva. I had no shortage of excuses as to why I didn’t attend; I didn’t have the time, it was a “crazy week,” etc. etc. But the truth is, I really didn’t know them, and I was nervous; what was I going to say to these people who were grieving? Nothing. I barely know the individual who passed and I didn’t know them at all. So I came up with every legitimate excuse not go.

And now, I was on the phone with the family who were quite upset at me for not coming to the shiva house. And they were 100% right. I should have swallowed my pride, gotten over the fact that I had nothing to say to them, and just showed up.

I apologized, of course. Profusely. But they ended up leaving the shul.

Rabbi Berel Wein, the famous Jewish historian and former congregational rabbi, wrote a book about his experiences as a rabbi. He has a section on funerals in which he describes the many times he’d be enjoying a hard-earned vacation and he’d get a call that someone had passed away. He’d deliberate, going back and forth in his mind if he should travel home, and his wife’s advice would win out every time. She’d say, “Berel, people only die once in their lifetime. This is your only chance to be there for them.” (As an aside, after too many cancelled vacations, he decided to only vacation overseas so he wouldn’t be forced to make these difficult decisions.)

His wife’s somewhat comical line how people only die once in their lifetime is something worth reflecting on, not just for rabbis, but for all of us.

Thank G-d, for the most part we are all self-sufficient. We’re hopefully employed. We have some basic level of social support. We’re okay. But invariably, in a person’s life, there will be times when our basic support is insufficient. Moments of crisis, moments in which we feel like we’re free-falling, lost, living in a deep, deep fog. For most people, thank G-d, that’s rare. But it happens. It happens to all of us. Often, other people don’t know when we’re free-falling or struggling. But there is one time when it is apparent to all, and that’s when we experience a loss. And it’s at moments like those, that we need each other, not just our rabbi, but each other, all of us, to just be there for us.

The traditional words that we say to a mourner are, Hamakom yinachem eschem. May G-d, who we refer to as ‘Hamakom’ – the place, G-d who fills all the space of the world, may He comfort you. There are many explanations as to why we refer to G-d with this unique name of ‘the place.’ But today, I’d like to share with you a homiletic interpretation on the word, Hamakom, suggesting that it does not refer to G-d. Rather, it refers to the place that is surrounding the mourner. If the space, the room in which the mourner is sitting is filled with people, not necessarily saying anything, but just being there, that provides nechama, comfort. If the place is empty, if there are no calls, no texts, no gestures, and instead the mourner free-falls on their own, if instead the mourner is lost on their own, if instead the mourner navigates the fog on his or her own, then there is no nechama.

It’s been well-documented how wise the laws of shiva are for the mourner. Burying their loved one as soon as possible as a way to give closure. Taking a break for seven days to give emotional space to focus on the loss. And the notion of visiting the mourner, making a shiva call, to receive comfort and strength from one’s community.

To fulfill the law of nichum aveilim, comforting the mourner, one need not say anything at all. All you need to do is show up, to be there, to demonstrate that you are with them. The Halacha actually states that you are not meant to say anything until the mourner speaks first. And if they don’t speak? You don’t speak. That’s okay, you’re there for them. That’s what’s important.

We’re not very good with silence and so we end up talking about silly things. Or far worse, we’re afraid, like I was, that we have nothing to say, or that they don’t even know us, so we protect our pride and we let our community member sit all alone, in an empty place.

In the very first message that Hashem conveys to Moshe to tell the Jewish People, G-d does not say, tell them I will save them, G-d does not say, tell them I will assist them. Rather,

כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם

Say to the Jewish People, “’I will be’ sent me to you.” (Shemos, 3:14)

G-d describes Himself with this new name, a name we don’t see anywhere else; “I will be.” What does I will be mean? Says Rashi, I will be with you in your pain. Imcha anoch b’tzara. The very first message that Hashem conveys to His enslaved people is not one of redemption or even of hope, but rather, it is one of presence. I will be with you. I am here with you.  

We often don’t know when people are going through a hard time, we have no way of knowing. But when someone experiences a loss, we know. We may not know them all that well. We may not have anything to say. But being a member of a community means being there for one another, not by doing or saying, just by being there. Imcha anochi b’tzara, I am here with you, to listen if you want to talk, but even if you don’t, I am here for you with my presence.

I often speak to people who are going through hard times. More often than not, I don’t have any solutions or cannot find words of chizuk, of encouragement, that will resonate; I know they will come out flat. But I’ve realized over these past years that my job, and not just my job, but the job every human being, every member of a community, is just to be there. Not to problem-solve, not to fill the silence with noise, but to touch and feel and taste the pain our community member is experiencing to the best of our ability and to just be there.

That means showing up to shiva houses. That means sending someone a one-line text even if we don’t know them that well, “thinking about you.” That means clicking the “care” button on Facebook when someone posts something sad. Imcha anochi b’tzara.

I’ll conclude with a poem I wrote a year ago. It was born out of my discomfort with the silence that being there so often entails.

I struggle for words, I bite my tongue, I sigh from the depth of my soul,

Your pain’s so deep, my words so weak, am I helping or hurting you more? 

My mind can’t stop racing, ideas, solutions, I am trying to not waste your time. 

My eloquence fails, my wisdom sails, all I muster is one more deep sigh. 

 

To the sleepless parent whose child is lost, to the orphan with nowhere to turn, 

To the suffering in silence, calming minds that can’t stop, and fears that always return, 

To those stuck in bed, with nothing to live for, fighting to go on for one more,

To those haunted by demons, by loved ones who hurt them, who robbed them of all youthful joy. 

 

To those hiding in closets, living two lives, torn into pieces and shreds, 

To the voices not heard, the people not seen, they walk among us, the living dead. 

To the lonely soul yearning for connection and love, whose hope hardened into despair, 

To those who heard (/read) this and wept, their pain not expressed, truly, my greatest fear. 

 

So as I struggle for words, as I bite my tongue, as you wonder if I’m even still there, 

I am trying my best to feel your pain, and to be there with you, and to care. 

I don’t have solutions, or words of wisdom, I don’t mean to waste your time. 

I just want you to know that no matter the reason, imcha anochi b’tzarah. 

 

We may not always have the words, we may even be afraid to share that we do not have the words, but as community members, let’s take a page out of G-d’s playbook, let’s be there for each other in times of pain. 

   

Mishna Yomi and Toilet Paper Rolls (Revisited)

This past summer, Hindy and I visited an art museum in Alexandria, Virginia to see an exhibit titled, a Year In, a retrospective of the pandemic. The first few pictures depicted the loneliness that many experienced during this time; a single chair on a rooftop overlooking a city, empty thoroughfares that we can only assume were once filled with cars and people. Some of the pieces were bizarre – a house surrounded by a cage, representing the sense of ‘stuck-ness’ that the artist felt during the lockdown. But the piece that made the greatest impression on me was a picture of toilet paper rolls. That’s right, toilet paper rolls.

In the first week of the pandemic, if you recall, toilet paper was more valuable than diamonds. For reasons I cannot even fathom now, we all thought that the biggest issue we’d have was a lack of toilet paper. There was no toilet paper anywhere. And it was during that first week of the pandemic, after finishing a roll of toilet paper, that Mark Armbruster decided to keep the cardboard tube of the toilet paper roll. Not only that, but he decided to jot down the date on the tube. Then, when he finished the next roll, he decided to do the same thing. And he kept at it. Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, for about a year and a half, Mark kept every tube of toilet paper that he and his partner finished and wrote the date on the leftover tube. The picture that made it to the exhibit was one of shelves filled with toilet paper tubes with the date that the roll was finished.

In the paragraph explaining the picture, the artist described the time warp that many experienced during the pandemic; our sense of time was completely distorted. It was those toilet paper rolls, he explained, that grounded him; it was how he kept time. The toilet paper rolls gave him a tool to ensure that time did not just pass him by; it helped him capture time. Each toilet paper, to this man, represented a chapter of his life during the past year and a half.

***

Time is slippery. How often do we say, where has the time gone by?

Time is so hard to capture. What? I didn’t get to do all that I intended?!

Time is our mortal enemy; we all know where time is taking us.

How do we capture our time? Trips we’ve gone on? Books we’ve read? Puzzles we’ve made? Or is it the relationships formed, the good deeds we’ve performed, and our inner growth? 

We’re attracted to the first category over the second because it is far more tangible. I could touch and feel the pictures from my grand vacations but I have nothing to show for my inner battles. And so we’re seduced by the concrete – the purchases, the awards, the shareable stories, when we all know not-so-deep inside that those are not the most meaningful accomplishments or usages of our time. 

***

As I was looking at that picture of toilet paper rolls, March 21st, April 3rd, April 19th… I thought of a group of people who tracked the pandemic in a very different fashion. People who completed Meseches Berachos just as the pandemic was beginning, Meseches Shabbos as things got so much worse, Meseches Eruvin through that long and difficult summer, Meseches Pesachim, Meseches Shekalim, Meseches Yomah, Meseches Sukkah, and on and on. In the struggle against time, there are those who capture her with volumes of the Talmud, and those who do so with toilet paper.

Daf Yomi is not for everyone. It’s not for most people. But there are other modes of trackable Torah study that are. This Shabbos, a new cycle of Mishna Yomi is about to begin. Mishna Yomi, quite similar to Daf Yomi, was a relatively recent innovation that attempts to give every single Jew an opportunity to connect to Torah in a comprehensive and daily fashion that is coupled together with a sense of accomplishment. It takes ten minutes of your time and in approximately five years you could learn all of Mishnayos (2 mishnayons a day). Most of the meaningful things in life are hard to track, spirituality is hard to capture, but there are exceptions to every rule, and these readily accessible Torah cycles are one of them. 

Limnos yameinu kein hoda, please grant us the ability to count our days.

Mishna Yomi: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/all-mishnah/id1598932850 (And if Mishna Yomi is not for you, stay tuned, a new Nach Yomi, a chapter of Navi a day, is starting in just a few weeks!) 

(Adapted from a Yom Kippur drasha) 

 

Post-Modern Orthodoxy Parshas Vayigash

This past week I had an extremely disturbing conversation. I was attending a dinner in support of the FIDF, the Friends of the Israeli Defense Force. It was a beautiful and moving event that highlighted the amazing work this organization does in supporting Israeli soldiers. I was talking to one of the event organizers who was thanking me for being there. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders, “Thank me? C’mon, of course I’d be here. It’s in support of the IDF – it’s a no-brainer.” Besides, someone paid for my seat…

But he disagreed and said it was a big deal that I was there. He explained that over the past couple of years, fewer and fewer rabbis were willing to attend their events and partner with them. First it was in the Reform movement and now, he told me, in the Conservative shuls as well. They cannot afford – politically – to align themselves with the IDF.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a few minutes later, someone who is heavily invested in Israel Bonds told me that fewer and fewer non-Orthodox shuls are willing to make campaigns for Israel Bonds. Israel Bonds?! Israel Bonds is the most classical Jewish cause. That’s like saying you don’t want bagels and lox! Israel Bonds, for the record, does not send any funds to Israel’s defense. 100% of the funds go to national infrastructure. But in too many circles, affiliation with Israel is out of vogue.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

A month or so ago we had an event here in conjunction with BZD and Stand with Us. One of the speakers got up and pointed out that the average age in the room was closer to 50, maybe 60. Where are the young supporters of Israel? She asked.

We know where they are. They are on college campuses which by and large paint support of Israel as evil. That’s where they are. They are indoctrinated by messages that equate support of Israel with support of Nazism. They are surrounded by peers who see the Israeli government, be it a liberal or conservative Israeli government, as anti-democratic and evil. Of course, they’re not showing up to FIDF events. Of course, they’re not supporting Israel.

So what do we do? How do we respond?

What we’ve done so far is create campaigns that show the world how multi-cultural and democratic Israel is. We teach people history so that they understand that Israel is far from perfect and yet has attempted to make peace many times and has been rejected. And with those who share our belief in G-d, we speak to the Biblical promises and their unbelievable fulfilment.

But clearly, it doesn’t work. We’re still told that Israel is an apartheid state. We are still told that Jews are colonizers who stole Palestinian land. We are still singled out time and time again despite a decent human rights track record, certainly in comparison to other nations. Why don’t these talking points resonate? Why don’t they make a difference?

We could chalk it up to antisemitism and that would undoubtedly be true. Not antisemitism in the secular sense, but a mystical idea of antisemitism, that no matter what, the Jewish People will be despised. Anyone with a basic knowledge of history cannot escape this truth.

However, there is something else here that I think we’re missing. When we try our talking points – speaking to Jewish and Israeli history, making logical arguments proving how Israelis are, for the most part “good guys”, we fail to realize that we are speaking a different language than your typical kid on campus. And when I say, typical kid on campus I mean our kids – too many of the young adults giving voice to the most anti-Israel sentiments are Jews. We do not speak the same language as a good portion of our society. We do not think the same way.

The most prevalent mode of thought in this day and age is something called, post-modernism. I am no expert on philosophy, but the basic gist of post-modernism is that there are no objective truths, that my lived experience is true, and I don’t have to defend it or prove it. This is why if you ask a teenager to share their opinion on something they will say, “I feel XYZ” whereas you and I would say, “I think…” Their reality is a feeling, a sense; logic, in its classical form, is dead. You cannot prove anything. No religion is more correct than any other. Every opinion is valid. Try explaining to my grandfather that a boy is a girl. That only makes sense in a postmodern world, where my lived experience is a reality. Argument, in such a reality, is futile. Everyone has been lamenting the death of discourse. But how can you talk to one another when there are no shared truths? When I see black, and you see white? And we’re both right.  

It’s very hard to change someone’s mind on Israel in a postmodern reality. It’s not to say we should not try; we should, and we must. It’s not to say that everyone under 35 thinks this way. But it’s worth noting the generational divide is vast and that we, us old ones (and yes, I am old in this regard), and the younger generation are talking different languages.

We could tsk tsk this new way of thinking or throw up our arms in despair. Or – we could recognize how deeply this way of thinking has impacted all of us. As I alluded to, the challenge of postmodernism impacts not only our connection to Israel, or social issues, it impacts our connection to our faith. If all religions are created equal, why should I do this? Because it feels good?! Well, what if it doesn’t feel good? Because you believe in it? Prove it! I ‘feel’ differently.

Though the philosophy of post-modernism dates back to the 80’s, maybe the 50’s, but us Jews have been grappling with post-modernism since the beginning of our history. The prophets of ancient Israel lambast the Jewish People not for serving idols, but for serving idols and Hashem. In the words of Eliyahu Hanavi, עַד־מָתַ֞י אַתֶּ֣ם פֹּסְחִים֮ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַסְּעִפִּים֒ אִם־יְהֹוָ֤ה הָאֱלֹהִים֙ לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְאִם־הַבַּ֖עַל לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֑יו “How long will you continue to skip between two opinions? If you want to go after Hashem, do so, and if you want to go after Baal, then go after him!”

We may not be chasing Baal, but we’re also skipping between the options. How many of us believe and how many of us believe – sort of? How many of us observe and how many of us observe – unless it’s really inconvenient? Too many mistakenly confuse this way of life as Modern-Orthodoxy. It’s not. It’s Post-Modern-Orthodoxy. 

The Maharal (I believe?) explains that the reason the Jewish People, as opposed to any other nation, embraced such a large pantheon of gods, the reason Jews have always gravitated to so many diverse ideas, is because we recognized the slivers of truth that existed within each ideology. There is something good to be found everywhere! There is some truth in every faith! But you cannot live a life holding on to everything at the same time. It does not work, and it certainly does not last. Those Jews that Eliyahu railed against, they were lost to history. They didn’t make it.   

You see, the greatest casualty of postmodernism is the lack of conviction that comes in its wake. The greatest threat to Orthodoxy, and Modern-Orthodoxy in particular, is this lack of conviction. (See the theme for this year’s Torah Umesorah convention and the take-aways from the most recent Pew report in Jewish Action). If our connection to Judaism is lukewarm, then our children’s connection will likely be cold, and their children… they likely won’t be Jewish.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. On the contrary, our community is most well-positioned for the exact opposite. We, who are not afraid of the outside world, we, who like the Maharal writes can see the good in the cultures and philosophies that surround us, we, who can take the good from the bad, and come back and say, we’ve seen it all and we choose to embrace Judaism, that’s a most powerful statement. There is one language that cuts through the apathy and the relativism and the confusion, the language of conviction and of passion. Because if our connection to Judaism is hot, then our children’s connection will be boiling, and their children – off the charts.

As B’nei Yisrael prepared to enter the land of Egypt, Yaakov and Yosef were concerned – how would the family survive? How would they make it out of this land with their faith intact?

Yosef’s strategy was to send his family to live in Goshen, away from the center of Egypt, away from the competing views. This, he believed, was to be their salvation – the very first self-imposed ghetto, shielding them from the foreign world around them. But there was a certain naiveté that Yosef had, thinking that distance or walls would shield his family from the seductive ideas of Egyptian culture.

Yaakov took a very different approach.  אֶת־יְהוּדָ֞ה שָׁלַ֤ח לְפָנָיו֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף לְהוֹרֹ֥ת And Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead of him l’horos, to show the way. To show the way?! Did Yaakov need directions? Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains: לְתַקֵּן לוֹ בֵּית תַּלְמוּד שֶׁמִּשָּׁם תֵּצֵא הוֹרָאָה He sent him ahead to establish a school, an academy, from which hor’ah, or Torah will come forth.

Yaakov recognized that you cannot run away from the draw of Egypt just like you cannot run away from the draw of Western civilization. Yaakov recognized that his descendants would thrive not by ignoring the world around them, nor by arguing with those around them, but by steeping themselves in what they believe. Then and only then did they have a chance to survive.

Our answers may not always resonate with everyone around us. Our answers may not always resonate with ourselves!! But apathy and lukewarm commitment is not a viable option. If we want to ensure that our values are passed on to the next generation, they need to be hot, they need to be on fire! What that means is not just getting by Jewishly, checking off the boxes. It means developing a deeper faith, deeper belief and constantly expressing that in action. More Torah study! More Mitzvos! more Tefilah! More Israel! It means passionate engagement with our faith, and it means sacrifice. It means cherishing ideas that are not so popular like the notion that not all beliefs are created equal, that not all truths are true. It means telling our children and telling ourselves, in word and in deed, that in a world of many gods, we can, and we will choose one.

I’m a Jew/ I’m a Greek Revisited

Chanukah is a holiday of bad takes. No one, absolutely no one, seems to know what this holiday is all about. Two weeks ago, in the New York Times food section, a recipe for Chanukah food was listed. Not for latkas, not for sufganiyot, not even for Greek salad, which would have been kinda funny. Instead, it was a Chanukah recipe for Matza ball soup. You know, the quintessential Chanukah food…

And that is nothing compared to the Bed Bath & Beyond Chanukah-themed pillow. It was a beautiful pillow with the words, “Why is this night different from all other nights? Happy Hanukah!” Do they not know Jews?! They literally could have walked into any Bed Bath & Beyond and asked every second shopper. The Bed Bath and Beyond parking lot is Chabad’s favorite place to hunt Jews. None of us can resist those oversized coupons! “Okay, okay, I’ll put on tefillin, just let me through!”

It’s not just non-Jews who don’t have a clue. I just saw a special edition of Chanukah gelt created by a certain Jewish-led group. Instead of Happy Chanukah written on the tin foil, it said, Free Palestine. Yes, the holiday upon which the Jewish People, two thousand years ago, defended their homeland – I don’t see it. Or, less egregious, but equally wrong is the narrative that Chanukah was established as a holiday to celebrate religious freedom. Which is sort of true. Yes, religious observance was under attack. But the Maccabees weren’t fighting for a laissez faire acceptance of all faiths, an Imagine-esque live and let live reality. They were fighting a life and death battle to promote the Jewish faith to the absolute exclusion of all others.

As we all know, the real Chanukah story involved two groups of Jews fighting over the soul of the Jewish People. There were the traditionalists, holding on for their dear life to the ways of their parents, arguing that the Jewish People must never change their ways, and the Hellenists, who sought to merge the wisdom of Aristotle to that of Moses, and wanted to part ways with the laws that seemed outdated. Antiochus, the Greeks, they were supporting actors at best in this epic drama of Jew vs. Jew.

I don’t blame people for not getting it; it’s a complicated storyline. And making it even more complicated, and what made the battle so fierce, was not the great divide between Athens and Jerusalem, but their many similarities. Yes, there were barbaric fights taking place in the coliseums, there was the Greek focus on aesthetics, and a certain amount of hedonism. But at the same time, there was no other culture that shared so much with our Torah. In the Hellenized states, the great Greek thinkers were pondering the meaning of existence and promoting an ethical life. It was the Greeks who put the word civil into civilization; they were creating an international community, not out of oppression and terror, but out of tolerance and the mixing of old and new. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet” (Bereishis, 9:27) – There is good reason that the Torah describes Greece as beautiful, or that the Talmud (Megillah, 8b) allows for a Torah scroll to be written in no other languages other than Hebrew and Greek, and that the Zohar (Shemos, 237a) proclaims that “Yavan/ Greece is close to the path of true faith.”  

Despite the great joy that surrounds this holiday – I love watching the dancing flames and singing with my family and with eight days of fried food and family fun it’s hard to complain – But in truth, I struggle mightily with fully embracing this holiday. The Greeks we defeated were the forefathers of Western civilization and all that it has to offer; public education, equality, civil responsibility, the arts; so many of the positive features of our society can be traced back to those ancient Greeks. Yes, there are elements of this Greek beauty that conflict with my religious value system, but there is also so much I adore.

Each year on Chanukah, I try to ask myself which ideas and values that I hold near and dear are Jewish values or which are Greek values. Because – and I’ll speak for myself when I say, the battle of the Maccabees is far from over. It’s no longer taking place in Israel. It’s alive and well and raging inside – inside me, and I imagine inside many of us. And so every year, I return to the notion that there is a part of me that is Greek and a part of me that is Jewish. Each year, I change, as we all do. Some things I struggled with in the past are no longer struggles. Some things are even greater struggles. But one way or another, I am still both a Jew and a Greek.

There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that quality of life is paramount, and a person should have full autonomy over his/her own body. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that believes that our bodies are a gift from G-d, not ours, and that every moment of life, as painfully challenging as it may be, is priceless, and that G-d is the One to choose what I can and cannot do with my body and life.

There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes in a plurality of ideas, in everyone being entitled to their viewpoint, or as we like to say in our society, to their “truth.” And there’s a part of me that’s Jewish, that believes that Moshe Emes v’soroso emes, that the Torah is true and while Judaism embraces plurality far more than other faiths, it believes in an objective right and wrong.

There is a part of me that is Greek – that believes, in the words of Mark Manson, that “One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter… We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.” And there is a part of me that is Jewish that believes that every act, every word, every thought impacts the cosmos and is so incredibly precious to G-d.

And lastly, there is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that if I were to be totally honest, at times is troubled with miracles I did not witness, in authorship I cannot verify, and in a future that seems so distant and foreign. And yes, in the darkest of times, even struggles with the existence of a Being I have not heard from. And at the very same time, there is a part of me that is so powerfully Jewish – a part of me that is over-awed by the majesty of the world, the profundity of the Torah, the arc of history, and even if it cannot be articulated, just knows that there must be an Author. A part of me that is awakened during prayer and feels a presence that shatters those doubts into millions and millions of pieces. 

 

No, this battle is not over. All night long we struggle. It’s not easy celebrating Chanukah when you’re both Jewish and Greek. 

***

My grandmother is here with us today. She grew up in Winsted, Connecticut. There were hardly any Jews, and no religious Jews. Her father died when my grandmother was 14. Her mother, my great-grandmother, struggled to support her family and so my grandmother who was in high school at the time, decided to do some work after school. She got a job as a typist and was told that she had to work on Shabbos. My grandmother, knowing that the family needed this money desperately, obliged and went to work.

As she describes it, “I sat there with the typewriter but my fingers wouldn’t type. I just sat there and sat there and sat there.” Finally, she decided that she couldn’t do it. She told her boss that she has to quit because she can’t work, and she decided right there and then that she wouldn’t work on Shabbos.

Today, we’re celebrating my grandmother’s 90th birthday. She has a large family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Who knows, but had she chosen to type on that fateful Shabbos and not made that commitment to keep Shabbos, it’s likely that she would not have met my grandfather and none of us, no one in my family, would be here today.

But we are here. We are here because she believed in a G-d she could not see. She believed in a Torah that everyone around her ignored. She believed in a value system that didn’t immediately gratify her. She wrestled but she chose to light a candle.

And because of her, I too will light a candle into this dark and confusing night. Not a torch, a small humble candle. A light that increases its glow every night ever so subtly.

 

To me, that small flame represents the march of history. It reminds me that this is not the first time that Jewish values were viewed as archaic or backward. It wasn’t always easy or fashionable to be Jewish and to live by its laws, but that ner tamid, that ever-lasting flame represents a history which has shown us time and time again that today’s morality is tomorrow’s backwardness.

 

To me, that small flame reminds me of another small flame, one I do not see but believe in; my soul, a Godly gift that is imbued with holiness and thirsts for meaning. She is a powerful rebuke and rebuttal to the aimlessness, meaninglessness, and hedonism that is rampant in society. As believers in a soul, meaning is not a figment of our imagination; our neshama represents a purpose and calling that is intrinsic to our existence.

 

To me, that small flame reminds me of G-d Himself. A fire in a burning bush. Reminding me that although I cannot see Him, He is there, specifically in the darkest, most painful and most seemingly G-dless places. Like the fiery pillars that protected my ancestors, I am warmed by the knowledge of His ever-present care and concern.

 

Like my parents and grandparents before me, I will light a candle, I will give voice to my beliefs, with the hope that my convictions will be passed on to my descendants who will light candles just like me.  

 

I am a Jew, and I am a Greek, but ultimately the Maccabees continue to persevere. And that’s because “Just a little bit of light,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “can banish a whole lot of darkness.” 

 

Let’s use the remaining three days of chanukah to strengthen our beliefs, to strengthen our resolve, to be honest with the conflict inside, but to allow the light of our faith to shine through.