Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hanukah: Learning to See the Miraculous

A story is told about R. Hanina ben Dosa (Talmud Taanit 25a). One Shabbat afternoon, seeing that his daughter was sad, he asked her what was the matter. She answered that she had mistakenly put vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbat lamp and was worried there would be no light for Shabbos. R. Hanina said to her: What do you care? Don’t worry. The One who told the oil to burn can also tell the vinegar to burn. (And so it was – the vinegar burned all through that Shabbat).

Rabbi Hanina has an interesting perspective on life. For him there is no difference between oil burning and vinegar burning. They are both acts of God. They are both miracles. It is with the same sense of awe and gratitude and amazement that he approaches the everyday miracle of oil light as the extraordinary miracle of vinegar light.

Maybe this is the message of Hanukah. The word we keep using for miracle on Hanukah is nes, a word that also means “banner” or “sign.” What are the miracles of Hanukah, the military victory and the oil miracle of 8 days? They are signs – messages to us about the miraculous nature of life in general. In their very extraordinariness, we see clearly the hand of God in the world, and with this light shining, we start to see it in the ordinary as well. That light we just lit to remember the oil miracle – that light we lit is itself miraculous with its sparkling flame born out of nothing and filled with a magical energy. God is in light, in the flame all the time, yet we don’t see it. It takes the miracle of Hanukah to point us back to the miracle of light and of life in general.

Oh, to be like R. Hanina ben Dosa! To see clearly the hand of God in the ordinary. To see the flicker of divine light in the child before us and the husband beside us and the snow on the ground. This Hanukah that is what I pray for – that we can understand the signposts as witnesses to the divine not just in the extraordinary but also in the ordinary. We thank you God not just al hanisim ve’al hapurkan . . . , for the special miracles of Haunkah, but also al nisekha shebekhol yom imanu, also for the miracles that are with us daily.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Parsaht Vayeshev: To be Like A Rock in Times of Trouble

Steadfast. To be like a rock through trouble, through the ups and downs of life, of our own changing moods and the constantly changing environment around us.

Sometimes we have the urge to run away when we are feeling down, to quit, to turn away from trouble, even to jump out the window and end it all, just to escape.

But what makes us strong is the ability to simply survive through it, to be like a rock that cannot run or be washed away, but simply sits and witnesses.

In the Torah this week, we are entering a period of great trouble for Yaakov and his family. The midrash says on the first verse of the parsha that Yaakov wanted, after all his earlier troubles, now to simply live in tranquility and it was this desire that brought the face of trouble back – there is no rest in this world; only in the next one.

And so begins the painful saga of the brothers’ cruel treatment of Yosef and his slavery, and Yaakov’s great suffering over the loss of his favorite son.

How do Yaakov and Yosef and all of us reading along get through it? Yaakov is associated with rocks. When he leaves his parental home, he sleeps on a rock, then lifts a rock off a well and finally makes a treaty with Lavan with rocks. I have always understood these rocks as a metaphor for the hardness of Yaakov’s life, for the troubles themselves, but now I think perhaps the rock is also a metaphor for the ability to get through those troubles. He is like a rock, surviving the rushing waters around him.

This week we talked in my middle school class about the phrase tzur hayenu, that God is “the rock of our lives.” One student came up to the board and drew a picture of a waterfall with some stepping stones along the way to hold on to. That’s what God is – the stones that we hold on to along the way that keep us from falling headfirst into the raging waters.

Later in life, Yaakov continues to speak of the harshness of his life, but he also speaks about a sense of protectedness, of the angel that protected him from all evil wherever he went.

How did Yaakov survive? He lay on a rock, on the hardness of life, and in the rock he found God standing above him, helping him to be, like the rock, steadfast through the difficulties.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach: On Prayer

I noticed the other day, as I was making a personal petition to God, that what I was praying for was that God should help me accomplish my goals. Suddenly such prayer seemed very wrong, almost idolatrous, as if instead of worshipping God, I was worshipping my own ambitions/desires, and subordinating God, too, to this foreign god. Please help me accomplish this, help me succeed, . . .

The realization came as a tremendous relief. Instead of asking God to do my will, I thought, I should be asking myself to do His will. Of course, there is the problem of knowing what His will is, and to some extent, some of my personal goals do involve things related to what I perceive to be His will – Help me to spread your Torah, for instance. Nonetheless, the emphasis is different. The question is – whose will is at the center of the enterprise, God’s or mine? And I find it a tremendous relief to remember to bend to His, to remember to place my own little life and its little obstacles and goals and successes in the cosmic scheme of service to the Holy One. Instead of bending God down to me, I feel myself being elevated by the thought – love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Give yourself completely over to Him.

The thought reminded me of a famous rabbinic expression – aseh retzono kiretzonkha kide sheya’aseh retzonkha kiretzono – make His will like your will so that He will make your will like His will. Align yourself to His plan and He will indeed help you succeed. You will be on the same team.

Looking at the parsha with this thought in my mind, I was struck by the end of Yaakov’s prayer for help upon hearing of Esav’s threatening approach with 400 men. Yaakov says – please help me for I fear he will kill me and my whole family, and You, God, told me that my offspring would be many. Normally, I read this cynically enough – Yaakov is trying to remind God to keep his promises. This year, though, it struck me that Yaakov is telling us something about the place from which this prayer emerges inside him – He is not just praying to God to help him accomplish his own, tiny Yaakov’s personal goals – the continuation of his family line – no, no – Yaakov has aligned himself with God’s plans for him, with the destiny that God has ordained for him, and it is out of this alignment of will that he cries out. He cries out because there seems to be a possible disruption not to his own personal plans, but to Yaakov’s understanding of his own role in God’s plan for history, in his divine destiny.

The difference is subtle but essential – Yaakov understood his place in God’s world, understood himself as a servant of God, one with a role to play in the divine plan, and it is out of this understanding that he cries out.

May we know how to turn to God with a heart of service.