Monday, November 25, 2013

Vayeshev 5774: Making Sense of Defining Moments in History

    Today is an auspicious day to say the least.  For today we commemorated one of the most traumatic events in the modern history of our country.  It was a day where many have argued that innocence died.  Of course we have lost other presidents to similar forms of violence: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley are also on the list.  Though one can argue that with better medical treatment, Garfield and McKinley would most likely have survived.  Be that as it may, the day Kennedy was shot, has never left the consciousness of most of those who were around to witness or recall the events of that tragic November day.
            For those who were lived through that time, you remember where and when you heard the news.  You remember what you were doing.  You remember who told you.  And they distinctly remember how you felt before and after.
            To paraphrase one of JFK’s nieces, I believe, “What we lost was his ability to galvanize the nation around the idea that we could rally around a common purpose on the right side of history.”  He was the one who told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  JFK was also the same man who inspired the space race.  For there was a time when we aspired to break the earthly orbit and feel our feet touch soil not directly of this earth.  He gave us hope and inspiration, and I feel part of the reason why we are so focused on this date, is because that legacy was lost to us, just as it was beginning to take root.
            This is in part why I also feel why the conspiracy theories still linger.  How could one man take away the hope of a new future away from us so quickly and so violently?  There must have been others who were threatened by the Kennedy legacy.  It was they, not Oswald, who stole that from us.  I for one, am very reluctant to subscribe to such theories, for a variety of reasons.  Though I am sure the reason why so many do is because they are troubled by the notion that a single crazed individual can alter the course of history.
            Be that as it may, there are those who have also weaved this narrative into the works of fiction.  There was a famous episode of Quantum Leap where Sam was transported into the body of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And Stephen King, not to long ago, wrote an alternate history where in his book 11/22/63, the protagonist Jake Epping was able to travel back in time and change the events in Dallas on that fateful day.  Of course then he had to deal with all of the ramifications of changing history.  It is a fascinating book and I do recommend it. 
            As I started, today is an auspicious day.  For those of my generation, thankfully we do not have our JFK moment.  Though I would argue, our moment was January 28, 1986 with the Space Shuttle Challenger.  I too can remember where I was, what class I was in, and how I felt afterwards for days, weeks, months, and years later.
            And then there are those of the millennial generation who remember September 11, 2001. 
            What all of these events have in common is the profound impact they had on the people who were around to experience them.  But they do, to some degree, have diminishing effects on the generations that followed.  December 7, 1941, is now a historical date for most, and does not have the same emotional resonance for subsequent generations.  And yet, for those who lived through it, how could they ever dream of forgetting the attack on Pearl Harbor?
            I mention all of this because after each one of these pivotal events, the world changed.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes it has been worse for wear.  But in either case, the world was different before and after each of these seminal events.
            We too in our tradition have dates such as these.  But they are not as much a part of our collective Jewish memory because the times have passed, and time heals almost all wounds.  586 BCE saw the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  From that point on, we have always been a Diaspora community.  70 CE, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.  Since that time, we have lived under the auspices of Rabbinic Judaism.  Another pivotal event in our history.  And being that we are a tradition that is over 4,000 years old, there are many more major, and minor events that were just as transformative as the ones that I mentioned at the start of this drash.
            Not all of them were bad by the way.  For example, next week, everyone is excited about the combined observance of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.  The name that seems to have stuck is Thanksgivvukah.  Though there are others out there as well, to be sure.
            People have written songs.  There are YouTube videos (some more hilarious than others).  I personally like the one where a nice normative family is invaded by their Jewish relatives who are taking over Thanksgiving for all 8 days.
            But what is lost in this, is the transformative nature of what Chanukah represents.  We celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days.  It is a wonderful Rabbinic midrash.  The truth is, Chanukah really has nothing to do with a ‘magic’ jar of oil. 
            Instead it was all about a miraculous fight for religious freedom.  It all started around 175 BCE when the local Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes replaced the High Priest Onias III with his brother Jason.  This set off a series of laws and decrees by Antiochus, who basically was trying to eradicate Judaism and replace it with Hellenism.  He allowed gymnasiums to be built in Jerusalem.  He outlawed the public study of Torah under the penalty of death (this by the way is the reason why we play with the dreidel.  The students would gather together to study, and if soldiers came by, they would quickly hide their materials and act like all they were doing was gambling).  So the dreidel was not just a children’s toy, but really a life saver.
            Antiochus outlawed circumcision and he pilfered all the wealth that there was in the Temple.
            And to add insult to injury, then Antiochus tried to place a statue of Zeus in The Temple in Jerusalem.  If he had been successful in his campaign, there would have been no more Judaism.  All that we know and do today, simply would not have come into existence.
            But a priest by the name of Mattathias, along with his 5 sons including Judah (later nicknamed the Macabee), along with religious zealots called the Chasidim began a guerilla war against the Selucid Greeks.  Their tactics were later studied an adopted by none other than our very own General George Washington in his battles against the British.
            They succeeded and on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE, (3598) the Macabees and their followers were able to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem.  Chanukah by the way means, “dedicate” or in this case, “rededicate.”  25 Kislev 3598, another auspicious date in our history.  I am sure it was memorable for those who were there and the celebrations that followed.
            For three years, it must have seemed like their way of life was over.  But, then with victory after victory, came a moment in time that has been a defining moment in our tradition ever since.
            We can talk another time about why Chanukah has become centered around the ideas of oil and gifts, around latkes and menorahs.  But we should know, that it is these pivotal moments in our lives and in the lives of our people that help to shape and define who we are, even if we weren’t there.
            Writers can speculate as to what the world may have been like if JFK had survived or had been riding in a car with a roof.  Would we have gotten out of Vietnam?  Would the Cold War have ended sooner?  Would Civil Rights have been much more at the forefront of the political discourse?  No one can say. 
            But what we do know is that without the courageous actions of our ancestors led first by Mattathias and later by Judah, we would not be sitting here this evening pondering these questions. 
            So just as we work to remember November 22, 1963, so too, we should incorporate into the essence of our being, our Jewish memory dates like 25 Kislev 3598, for that was an important date in history for us as well. 
            And in this case, unlike today’s date, it is a date we can celebrate.  For there are too few dates of celebration in our history.  I for one am planning on making a turbriskeh, an old Southern Jewish favorite: Turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes. 
            But not to make light of today’s 50th anniversary, I do ask that we use dates such as these to remind us that even in the face of tragedy, we all have the ability to bring greater goodness into the world.  Yes innocence was lost that day.  And we are all left with a feeling of, “what if?”  that can never be answered, only speculated.
            But what is important is that we are here to ask these questions.  We are here to try to, if not make sense out of tragedies, to at least give them lasting meaning, in our lives, in our country, and in the place of history.  For we are all defined by every event in our lives, both big and small.  But what we sometimes forget is that we are also defined by those events that came long before us.  And we should not forget that they had and still have meaning for us to this very day.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

For Sam

This past year I lost three people near and dear to me to the devastation that is cancer.  First came the shocking news that we lost my Aunt Nancy.  It is a long tale, but needless to say, we had no idea she was even sick, let alone dying.  So when the news came, we were all devastated.

Then we lost one of my heroes Anna.  She was the inspiration to many with her strong will and sense of Annatude.

Then came my friend Steve.  He was my guitar hero and the epitome of what it means to be a mensch.

Words cannot possibly summarize the lives of these three wonderful people and the lasting impact they have left on their friends and their families

As a rabbi I have also eulogized and buried far too many cancer victims.

But today many of us received the news too heartbreaking to even contemplate, our hero Superman Sam Sommer, who has been battling a vicious and nasty ninja of leukemia, has received the news that it is back.  And not only that, there is very little else that can be done.

My heart is breaking for his parents Phyllis and Michael, and for his siblings David, Yael and Solly.  I wish I had the power to take away some of their hurt, some of their pain.  I wish I had the power to fight and destroy this horrible disease.  But wishes are just that wishes.  There is nothing I can do to ease their pain, and there is nothing I can do to fight such a vicious foe.

But then I remember, it's not about me, it's not about any of us.  It is about Sam and Phyllis and Michael and David and Yael and Solly.

And in the face of such an evil disease, all the rest of us can do is hug our children more often.  All we can do is continue to love one another.  All we can do is remember that there are far too many of us fighting battles like Sam's against overwhelming odds.

There is too much hate and anger in the world.  We spend to much time spewing words filled with vitriol because we disagree about something be it philosophically, politically, religiously.  We forget what matters: love of family and friends.

In the meantime, I am rededicating myself to the reminder that Superman Sam continues to be my hero.  And that his battle is all our battle.  And that we will not have won until we no longer lose any of our loved ones to that evil foe that is cancer.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


     There has been a great deal of reporting on the convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, which will be taking place this November.  As an interesting aside, both holidays are based on the Jewish festival of Sukkot: the fall festival of Thanksgiving.  For the pilgrims, who knew their Bible, they wished to celebrate a version of Sukkot.  And for the Hasmoneans (the group led by Judah the Macabbee), they wished to reinstitute Sukkot by rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem after they reconquered it from the Selucid-Greeks.  Hence the eight day festival of Chanukah, which is very much modeled after the eight days of Sukkot.

            However, given the curious anomaly of Thanksgiving and Chanukah overlapping, I do think it is worth taking a moment to talk about the Jewish system of calendaration.  This is because our calendar is one of the more complex systems out there, which is why our holidays seem to occur either earlier or later during the Gregorian year.

            This is because, according to the Torah, we follow the lunar calendar.  Part of this is because the cycles of the moon are much easier to follow than the seasons dictated by the sun.  You may have noticed that many of our holidays seem to fall either when there is a new moon or a full moon.  This is of course, by design. 

The months of the Hebrew calendar are either twenty-eight or twenty-nine days long.  This means that unless we adjust our calendar it will not line up with the Gregorian or solar calendar.  This would not be a problem except we also follow the agrarian calendar because we have a fall festival (Sukkot), a spring festival (Passover) and a summer festival (Shavuot).  These festivals all need to fall in the calendar around the appropriate time of year. 

            Basically what this means is that we have to periodically readjust the calendar to make it work.  But there is an additional problem.  The problem is that there are also certain days holidays cannot fall.  For example: Yom Kippur can never begin on a Thursday evening.  This is because traditional households would never have the chance to prepare for Shabbat.  So except, for Shabbat, we determine, to some degree, the days on which certain holidays take place.

            For all intents and purposes, what has arisen is a mathematical formula to keep track of the comings and goings of our observances.  The only day that is consistent is Shabbat, which falls on the seventh day, no matter what.  Otherwise, to keep it all straight, we add seven leap years every nineteen years to readjust the calendar.

            This is why Chanukah falls so early this year.  We have not had a leap month recently, so the holidays have been taking place earlier and earlier during the solar year.  In 5774, both the holidays and Chanukah will take place about as early as they possibly can during the Gregorian year.  Add to that, November having an additional Thursday, and this is why you end up with Chanukah and Thanksgiving overlapping.  According to some estimates, this will not happen again for another thousand years.

            If you are confused, not to worry, there is a simple solution.  Buy a Hebrew calendar or a Hebrew calendar app, go to Hebcal, or download the new Har Sinai Congregational app.  The Hebrew calendar is the same on all of them.  And make sure to enjoy your turkey with latkes, and don’t forget to light the menorah at halftime.  In my family, we are going to try a new experiment: the tur-bris-ke or turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes.  What better way to celebrate the two festivals based off our fall festival of Thanksgiving.  Chag Sameach everyone!