Tag Archives: High Holidays

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights –By Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

Chanukah at Temple Beth El: Illuminating the meaning behind the “Holiday” of Lights

By: Dara Gever, Director of Youth Engagement

We have made it to the end of the November trajectory that shoots us through Thanksgiving and Black Friday, delivering us to the doorstep of the month of December like a package that arrives early.  Our seasonal obligations were relatively straightforward up to this point: make plans to bring our families together for Thanksgiving; navigate complex family relationships and accommodate everyone’s unique (and sometimes crazy) food requirements; wait in line for a discount on Black Friday; and exclaim that December snuck up on us upon looking at the calendar on Monday morning.

Suddenly, as though overnight, holiday wreaths have sprung up around malls and holiday lights decorate every nook and cranny of our public living space.  The Starbucks cashier wishes you a Happy Holiday, the dentist sends you a Happy Holidays card in the mail, and the world is alive with light shows and holiday editions of foods and drinks.  The anticipation of Christmas transforms the landscape of American culture, turning all public venues into celebrations of this non-Jewish holiday.

American Jews, particularly those who are Reform, are renowned for our ability to assimilate to the norms of contemporary American society.  In fact, the ability to conform to the society of which we are a marginal population has saved Jewish people from being expelled from society altogether for ages.  In general, our Jewish rituals are neatly compartmentalized physically: we attend services at synagogue; we celebrate Shabbat with those who are close to us, privately; we light the menorah at home.  We are Jews in the synagogue and home, and Americans outside of it.  The term “Holiday” represents society’s acknowledgement that other religions—Jews in particular—wish to be a part of American society, one that is founded on Christian values.  This term is an attempt to equate Christmas with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which usually falls very close to December 25th.  In other words, it is an attempt to inject Chanukah with a measure of importance by associating it with Christmas.  When the term “Holiday” is used during the month of December, it demonstrates how successfully American Jews have integrated into American society, after centuries of expulsion from communities of every generation.

Chanukah is certainly a unique Jewish holiday worthy of celebration, but we must be cautious not to fall into the habit of comparing a minor Jewish holiday with a Christian holiday that is, in comparison, colossal—comparable only to Easter in importance, truly.  As Dr. Ron Wolfson explains in his article, “The December Dilemma,” found on MyJewishLearning.com, some Jews will conflate Chanukah with Christmas by telling their children, “’Christmas is for Christians.  They have Christmas.  We are Jewish.  We have Hanukkah.’  In an attempt to substitute something for Christmas, the parent offers Hanukkah.”  The challenge that we face during December is teaching our kids about the special significance of Chanukah without comparing it to or competing with the significance of Christmas.

The good news is that Temple Beth El’s mission is to provide a super fun Chanukah celebration for every age group.  The k/1, 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7 junior youth group advisors have organized Chanukah events for all kindergarten through seventh graders.  ALL events for kindergarten-seventh grade will take place on Saturday, December 13th from 3-5 PM.  This date and time was chosen purposefully to maximize the convenience of dropping off kids of multiple ages.   The LIBERTY board has been working around the clock to plan our Chanukah lock in from December 12th-13th.   To find out more about all Chanukah youth, or to sign up and pay online, go to www.beth-el.com and look under “Temple Beth El Community Events” (you will have to scroll down a bit). There is also information about adult Chanukah programs on the Beth-El.com homepage.  No matter what age you are, there is a Chanukah event that you’ll love at Temple Beth El.

Even though we cannot completely solve the “December Dilemma,” we can embrace the “Holiday” season as a time to remind our kids why being Jewish is unique, special, and cause for celebration.

Aim for holiness in the New Year

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27 – the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:

Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!

Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy – namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.

This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct – to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.

On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.

Life continues in doubts and loves

[Rabbi Jonathan’s houghts on remembrance for the Community Memorial Service at the Hebrew Cemetery in Charlotte, NC, Sunday, September 23, 2012]

A Poem, by Yehuda Amichai

The Place Where We are Absolutely Right

From the place where we are absolutely right
flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are absolutely right
is trampled, hardened
like a courtyard.

doubts and loves
make the world rise like dough
like a molehill, like a plow.
And a whisper will be heard
in the place where a home was destroyed.

We still relate to those who are gone. We wish they were here to share time and space with us. We talk to them and wish they would talk back. We look back with regret over opportunities missed. Loss remains within us, a hollow space, demanding attention.

As our loss demands attention, so do we resist it – we want it to be simple and complete – to be absolute like the place in Amichai’s poem. A place where we are absolutely right sounds like a comfort. This place could be easier. It would certainly be quieter. Amichai reminds us what that place would look like – it would be truly lifeless. There are no possibilities there. In that place we allow our own small needs to crowd out everything else.

The people we have lost are not absolutely one way or another either, and to hear them we may have to admit that one person may have many sides that we remember.

My father (z”l) and I used to hotly debate the issues of the day. We knew each other’s positions very well, and often started arguing where we had left off before. After hours of discussion on long car trips between North Carolina and New York we usually managed to discover some common ground – growing closer through our doubts and our love. Over the years, as he fell ill to pancreatic cancer, my father lost interest in these conversations, preferring exchanges that took less effort. I lost those times even before he died. Now that he’s gone I must go past that barren place where nothing grows into my older memories of him in order to connect with a more living time between us.

Instead of working towards that place of absolutes, let us embrace our doubts and loves. Let us live and struggle in our world of grays and colors and shades of partial knowledge. In this world where things grow, things die as well. Our loss grows and changes and we learn and cope.

Over time we all accumulate a bigger cast of characters in our places of loss. As their numbers grow, as our loss increases, so too do those conversations. The ones where we offer one side and have to imagine the other side. These conversations can only happen in the places where we are not always right. Reminiscing with family and friends and imagining the thoughts and ideas of those who are gone allows us to keep them with us, allows doubt and love to live on.

As we enter this new year of 5773, let us bravely enter the areas of loss in our lives together. May we find in our own hollows, in those spaces filled with destroyed homes, the whispers of those who have left us behind, and the responses of we who remain.

In this time of communal memorial, this space filled with repentance and confession, this time of broken hearts and open gates, let us comfort each other. Our doubts and loves shared caringly with each other, our compassion and loss felt together, may help leaven the rising dough of our world. Let us listen to each other whisper, let us find comfort in honoring what has gone before, and building anew together.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we be well inscribed together in the New Year.

Silence may be our best response

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 – priestly offerings, the strange and horrible deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, and the rules of kosher eating.

We can’t easily ignore the death of Aaron’s sons, here’s the full text:

Lev. 10:1 Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took each-man his pan, and, placing fire in them, put smoking-incense on it, and brought-near, before the presence of Adonai, outside fire, such as he had not commanded them.
2 And fire went out from the presence of Adonai and consumed them, so that they died, before the presence of Adonai.
3 Moses said to Aaron: It is what Adonai spoke (about), saying: Through those permitted-near to me, I will be-proven-holy, before all the people, I will be-accorded-honor! Aaron was silent.

Today, during these days of reflection, I want to learn from Aaron. In the face of tragedy, personal and communal, sometimes all we can bring is our silence presence.

In this, Aaron, the one who could speak easily and well, learned from Moses, who spoke reluctantly and earlier described himself this way:
No man of words am I, not from yesterday, not from the day-before, not (even) since you have spoken to your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I! (Exodus 4:10)

When struck by the worst of pains, thoughtful anguished silence may be the best we can offer.

Good Citizenship Requires Individual Participation

Shanah Tovah everyone! Happy Second Day of 5773!

Today we look at Va-Yikra, Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 – the first reading of Leviticus.

Leviticus opens with a lot of talk of offerings – the different kinds of things we must offer up on an altar in ancient Israelite religious practices.

We no longer do these, so what can they teach us?

Community rules count – when we miss the mark and hurt someone, we have probably violated an ethical code of our community as well. So we apologize to the person we’ve hurt, make amends, and then pay a penalty to the community for disrespecting the civics of our society as well.

We are all connected, and our actions have repercussions beyond the individual.

During these Days of Awe we are called upon to confess publicly for exactly this reason – as individual members of a community we need to repair our standards together.

Accepting our limits allows us to go farther

Tomorrow night is Rosh HaShanah – the daily Elul thought will transform into daily thought for the High Holy Days or Days of Awe, as the month of Elul will end, and become the month of Tishrei. Make sure to take time out to acknowledge the Jewish New Year on Sunday night, and Monday, and Tuesday. L’shanah tovh u’metukah – a good and sweet new year to everyone!

Today we look at Va-yak-heil, Exodus 35:1 – 38:20 – the gathering of the donations to build the Tabernacle, and the fashioning of the pieces and construction takes place.

Perhaps the only not-for profit effort in all time to be so enthusiastically completed, as it says here in Exodus, Chapter 36:
5: …The people are bringing much more than enough for the service of (doing) the work that God has commanded, to make it!
6 So Moses commanded and they had a call go throughout the camp, saying: Man and woman-let them not make-ready any further work-material for the contribution of the Holy-shrine! So the people were stopped from bringing;
7 the work-material was enough for them, for all the work, to make it, and more.

As we think about Elul, we might look back on the last year and note how often we felt the opposite of this. How often did we feel depleted and without the resources to complete the tasks we set before us?

Is this about the demands made upon us by our tasks, or is it about the number of tasks and the details we promise to get done?

When the task is finite, we can complete it with enthusiasm. If the goals we have set require work without end, we mistreat ourselves as unlimited resources.

For the year to come, let us try to set ourselves reasonable tasks – and find ourselves bringing more than enough to them.

We must treat this world’s existence as limited in order to better find connections with the infinite.

I know I will be working on this for a long time!

Remembering 9/11 and Thinking About Elul

Today we look at Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 – lots of laws, the promise of a guardian that will go before the Israelites and vanquish our enemies as we enter the Land of Israel, and the call to approach Mount Sinai.

Of the many laws, here are two:
Exodus 23:4 When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, return it, return it to him.
5: When you see the donkey of one who hates you crouching under its burden, restrain from abandoning it to him – unbind, yes, unbind it together with him.

On this September 11 during Elul, the month leading up to our High Holy Days, we should remember our tragedy and be moved by it to approach our enemies and those who hate us with integrity and generosity.

Let us turn hatred and enmity into civility.

Make the Present by Remembering the Past

Today we look at Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16 – the conclusion of the plagues leading to the Israelites leaving Egypt and servitude.

The main theme of this parashah culminates in the practices of Passover, a holiday of remembrance. We remember in large part through dietary restrictions:

Exodus 13:6 For seven days you are to eat matzot [unleavened bread], and on the seventh day (there is): a pilgrimage-festival to Adonai.
7 Matzot are to be eaten for the seven days, nothing fermented is to be seen with you, no leaven is to be seen with you, throughout all your territory.
8 And you are to tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what Adonai did for me, when I went out of Egypt.

This reminder of our identities as the descendants of the oppressed gets reinforced every year through a week-long change in what we eat.

Elul and the High Holy Days also ask us to remember – to remember our own actions and their impacts, to remember our obligations to ourselves and others, and to remember those who are no longer with us.

We may not always have a vivid physical reminder of the past, so we must find ways to have the past and its meaning live on through the changes we make in ourselves.