Wearing Tallit

When I place my tallit around my body and say the blessing “lehitatef batzitzit – to wrap myself in the tallit”, a number of feelings wash through me changing my sense of self. To begin with, putting on tallit is a marker in time – with this action I am letting go of the mundane, of the worries and the niggles of my ordinary life and I am entering demarcated and focussed prayer time. Secondly, there is a marker of change in my emotional state – The feeling of being wrapped in the tallit provides a sense of warmth, comfort, separation from surroundings and connection to a different sphere, as the weight on my shoulders reminds me of the expectations and obligations I have taken upon myself as a religious Jewish person. And finally, the putting on of tallit creates a marker in space – my tallit provides a tangible boundary between my internal world and the outer one.

The tallit is so much more than a shawl traditionally worn while praying the morning service. It is a both creator and signifier of disconnection and reconnection.

I have never known a barmitzvah boy think twice about receiving and wearing his tallit. It is just something that they do, something they expect to do, for them it is a right and an obligation to wear the symbols of obligation and rights. I have never known a batmitzvah girl (or any woman) take on tallit without much soul searching and some anxiety. Are they ready to take on all that tallit means? Does the wearing of tallit give the proper statement about their religious observance and worth? Is it saying something more than they are able to do or be?

While it is often said to be that the tallit is a male garment, this view dates only from medieval times and came into being as a way of underpinning the growing move towards prohibiting women from wearing it. And women did, we know, wear tallit and they were explicitly permitted to do so in a number of early rabbinic responsa and even Talmud (Menachot 43a) tells us that “Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves” and gives us two examples of Sages who attached tzitzit to the clothing of the women in their households – Rabbi Judah ( Menachot 43a) and R. Amram the pious (Sukkah 11a). The reason given for women being exempt from this mitzvah (not, note, prohibited) is that it is a positive time bound mitzvah and the rule of thumb was understood to be that women were exempt from having to perform mitzvot that were bound to fixed times – except of course, when they were not exempt, such as lighting the Shabbat candles, making Shabbat kiddush, lighting the chanukiah, prayer….. And the idea of the garment to which tzitzit are attached being strictly male – well, Bedouin to this day wear the four cornered cloak described in our texts (the abaya)– and both men and women wear it.  

Only in the thirteenth century did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg begin to overturn the practise of generations and his view was promulgated by Isserles in the 16th Century who wrote that the wearing of tallit by women might be a sign of religious arrogance or self righteousness (Yuhara), although even he admitted that a woman could wear tztitiz, it was her intention that mattered, not the wearing per se . But since this medieval onslaught against the presence of women in the public space, the practise has dwindled to the point where it is barely remembered, until in our days a critical mass of women have once more decided to take on the wearing of tallit as a mitzvah.  

The variety of journeys that women take to adopt for themselves the mitzvah of tallit is extraordinary and salutary. I know of women who choose to wear the tallit of a deceased husband, father or grandfather as a mark of respect and love, and a desire to be close in prayer to those who gave meaning to their lives. I know of women who studied hard in order to make their own tallit and who choose to weave extraordinary moments and memories into the fabric, building a sort of physical memory of their spiritual life into the tallit. I know of women who wear the tallit of Women of the Wall as their choice of garment in order to additionally show their support for other women practising this mitzvah wherever they may be in the world. I know of women who wear ‘feminine’ tallit and women who wear ‘traditional’ designs always for particular reasons, and of women who wear both at different times in their prayer lives. I have never yet met a woman who thoughtlessly puts on tallit, or who sees it as her religious right that she must display to others, or sees the wearing of it as an act of rebellion or arrogance or in-your-face piety.

The arguments against women wearing tallit seem to hang on either it being a male garment (easily circumvented should one buy this argument by the plethora of feminine talliot that can be purchased) or that exemption should be extended to prohibition on the somewhat shaky ground that women only wear tallit to be arrogant (something that can be easily disproved by talking to -and listening to -women who choose to wear tallit.) The arguments for women wearing tallit is that we find it an aid to prayer, a ritual that increases our kavannah – our focus and concentration on our relationship with God as we pray. It creates special time, special space, a deposit of memory on which we can build and from which we can grow, a custom that deepens and warms our religious attachment. It provides a much needed boundary between the mundane and the sacred in our busy lives, it signifies our detachment from the unimportant and our attachment to our Creator in prayer.  If you haven’t yet explored the possibility of this mitzvah, I encourage you to do so. Male or female, we all have much we can gain from it.

 

 

 

Parashat Vayechi

On Friday evenings it is traditional to bless our children before making Kiddush. We place our hands on the head of each child, and for boys we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” For girls we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And for all the children we add the Priestly Blessing, asking for God’s protection, blessing, and grace.

The biblical source for blessing sons at Kiddush comes from today’s parashah. A short time before Jacob dies, he meets Joseph’s children, his grandsons, and in an emotional scene, he says (Genesis 48:20): “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh…'” And so the Jewish people have been using that invocation to bless their children for centuries.

But the content of the blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh actually comes before Jacob speaks to them and the blessing seems to be given to their father initially – in verses 15 and 16, the Torah records: “And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying, ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God Who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.'”

If this is a blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh, why does the text say, “And he blessed Joseph“?

The medieval commentator Nachmanides provides one answer: “. . .Jacob really wanted to bless his beloved Joseph;  and out of his love for Joseph, Jacob blessed his sons”.  And the 17th c scholar and kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz comments: “[Jacob blessed Joseph] in order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him and become good people”.

Whatever the reason, Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were all blessed by Jacob.

The language that he uses in his interaction with the Egyptian influenced Joseph and his completely Egyptian sons is interesting. From his perspective at the end of life, Jacob understands that God has been his Shepherd from his birth and throughout his life, watching over him during his difficult physical and emotional journeys. And so he wishes for Ephraim and Manasseh that same sense of protection and security. Nachmanides  suggests that the word for shepherd, “ro’eh“, may be related to the word “ray’ah“, friend and that in referring to God as “ro’eh,” Jacob is also wishing the blessings of  friendship on Ephraim and Manasseh.

The image of the Angel, who “has redeemed me from all harm” is traditionally understood literally – Jacob certainly has encountered redeeming angels in his lifetime (on the ladder at Beit El when he left home precipitously, and at the Ford of Jabok the night before meeting Esau when he returned home after 20 years), but ultimately an angel is a messenger of God, and as Rashi understands it, it was God whowas with Jacob in his times of trouble. And this, then, is the particular blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh: that God should be with them, protecting them, encouraging them and supporting them in their times of trouble.

The third portrayal: “The God in Whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked” is seen as more than just descriptive to 13th Century scholar David Kimchi (Radak).  To him “Walking with God” means serving God in heart and deed, and Radak believes that the root of this service is in the heart. Jacob is thus understood to be praying that Ephraim and Manasseh walk in God’s ways, in their thoughts, intentions, sincerity and day-to-day deeds. What God wants from them should never be far from their minds.

And finally, Jacob prays (Genesis 48:16): “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”Nachmanidestells us that this means that for Ephraim and Manasseh “their descendants and their names should exist forever, and the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should forever be upon them.”

All these traditional understandings give us a rich insight into what was in the mind of Jacob, – he was blessing both the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel and also the descendants of that son with the friendship and nurturing of God, with the protection and encouragement of God, and with the ability to serve God with complete sincerity, and these are things we want for all our children.

But what is so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenat. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.

What was Jacob thinking? What was he doing in adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own and effectively transgressing the generational boundary? And why, after adopting them in verse 5, does he suddenly notice them in verse 8 and ask, “Who are these?”

Jacob is altering the system of inheritance in so many ways in this action – he in effect disinherits Joseph in favour of the two grandchildren, who each become a sort of half-tribe. And then he crosses over his arms while blessing the boys, symbolizing the reversal of the usual pattern of bestowing the greater blessing on the older son. Joseph – the older brother of Rachel’s two boys – protests, but Jacob—a younger brother himself, is happy to subvert the position of the older brother.  He’ll bless in his own way, giving priority to the younger son as he himself took priority from his older brother. The scene is reminiscent of his own parental blessing, when his blind father also asked

 who it was who was to be blessed, but here everything is explicit and open. It seems that this blessing is less about God acting as supporter, nurturer and protector, and more about the people doing the blessing and those accepting the blessing.

So why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land. Or perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably … Now that siblings have learned to get along, the story of the Jewish people can move to the next stage.

In our time, Rabbi Harold Kushner sees a blessing that is surely relevant for ourselves and our children today: When we say to our children that we would like them to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, two Egyptian born and raised young men, who are yet able to be part of the family of Israel, we are maybe asking for them to maintain their Jewish identities while living fully within our non-Jewish society. May they be like Ephraim and Manasseh, living complex lives with integrity, being fully themselves.

Kushner also sees a blessing in the boys’ relationship with each other. He suggests they become a source of blessing “because they were the first brothers in the Bible to have a good relationship, after the conflicts that marred the lives of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.” So it’s possible the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is one of peace and acceptance. When Jacob crosses his hand to bestow the greater blessing on the younger boy, neither boy complains (although their father does). They accept the blessing they are given, and given the lack of a story of brotherly strife, we assume it did not harm their relationship.

Whatever is behind the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, the blessing that we are to repeat to our own sons each week – whether it is an incantation designed to protect our children by calling on God to care for them, or an aspiration that they will grow to live their lives in harmonious relationships, or that they will understand their complex identities in a diverse world, or a formula to remind them of their place in the chain of tradition that connects them to both ancestors and descendants – this is a complex and beautiful ritual.

The blessing to Joseph and his sons is wonderful, and a stark contrast to the blessings Jacob will bestow on his own sons shortly before his death. He must have looked into the future of his grandchildren and seen for them a world where they would carry the message and the memory of the patriarchal promise, the covenant with God. While we may wonder what exactly Jacob understood and hoped for his grandchildren, we should take the opportunity to think too about what we pray for today when we bless our own children. What do we want for our children and what do we want for the children of our community and our society?  

While we live, we can invoke and provide a blessing for the next generations. How we choose to do it is up to us.

 

 

Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.  

Vayigash

            The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question:  “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?”  I am Joseph. Does my father still live?”  Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.”  Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt.  The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.

            All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read.  Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why?  When they do the inevitable, what happens?  Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on.  When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not?  We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book.  Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably.  Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship.  And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does. 

            Joseph, the assimilated Jew.  The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children.  Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence.   Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18). 

            It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”.  Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata  Gen 22:12)  But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again. 

            Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God.  And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers.  It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him,  which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story.  Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives.  It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it.  Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad”  – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little.  So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.

            The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting.  Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things.  We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.

 Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being

Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of  God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God).  Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth.  No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion-  instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God. 

Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.

            The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live?    The end is  marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai”   It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.

            The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.   It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared.  The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest.  All it takes is  Yirat Adonai:  not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob.  The first important person we have in the text  who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life.  Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity.  Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God.   Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation.  With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day.  To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious.   Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow. 

Mikketz

“I have dreamed a dream and there is none that can interpret it”

 How does Pharaoh know that his magicians are not giving him satisfactory answers to his dream, but that Joseph’s interpretation is the correct one?   What tells him to discard the professional responses in favour of the account from a young unknown with his  vision and clarity of purpose?  For Pharaoh recognises Joseph’s analysis as true, his connection with God as unparalleled, and his ability to translate the dreams into achievement invigorating.  Taken hastily from his prison, Joseph is elevated to ruler of Pharaoh’s household because he has the ability to translate insight into action.

Parashat Mikketz is always read on the Shabbat in Chanukah, the festival of rededication of the Temple when we remember the Maccabees who fought for the right to worship in their own way. And while it is called a festival of lights, it is more accurately a festival of rights, as we commemorate the struggle of a people to freely express their religious and cultural identity and openly be themselves in a world with different values and hatred of otherness. 

As we read Pharaoh’s words to Joseph – “Halom Halamti” – I have dreamed a dream – we are reminded of that other formulation – Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”  that underpinned the American Civil Rights movement in the last century. The turning of a dream into a vision, by using it as a springboard to change the way the world works is a theme of both the festival and the parasha. In both cases the passionate outsider sees clearly what must be done, in both cases the status quo is forced to change.

Pharaoh must have known all along the meaning of his dream, to have rejected the interpretations of his ministers. Dreams are not especially helpful as insight, but only as a guide to action.  He needed the energy of vision to come along to help him transform the dream to reality. We too hug our dreams close, knowing what we should be advocating and enabling but all too often choosing passivity rather than activism.  So when will we begin to turn the dreams we dream into practical visions for the future?

 

Vayeshev

Two different approaches to life can be found in this sidra – the first being when Joseph is seeking his brothers in Shechem, “And a man found him and he was wandering in a field, and the man asked him: ‘what are you looking for?'” (Gen 37:15). Had he not met this person and been told that his brothers had moved on to Dotan, he would have returned safely to his father and his life in Canaan would have continued uneventfully, though with continued sibling friction we assume. Having met him however, the train of Joseph’s life was inevitably altered, he went down to Egypt and so opened the way for the whole people of Israel to travel to Egypt and to settle there.

 Who was the man he met who so changed the course of Israelite history? Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak (1040 -1105) suggests that this pivotal figure must have been important and suggests it is the Angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is more pragmatic and suggests that this is truly an ordinary passer-by who just happened to be there with information at a critical moment. And Ramban (Moses ben Nachman 1194-1270) beautifully marries the two ideas by suggesting this is truly an ordinary human being, but acting as a messenger of God, a malach (the Hebrew word for messenger, also used for describing what we might call a divine messenger or angel).  So possibly this could be the divine plan in action, or it could be a coincidence with ramifications, but either way, Joseph is the passive recipient of the event – his life is radically transformed without any active intention of his own.

The second approach to life can be found in the actions of Tamar who, through no fault of her own, finds herself waiting for release from her status of childless widow.

 When it becomes clear that the family who can liberate her are choosing not to do so, she takes matters into her own hand. Never mind that she has to dress as a prostitute, nor that she has to waylay her own father in law in order to progress her cause. Never mind that she suffers the charge of adultery when her condition becomes known – Tamar chooses this path rather than find her life unfairly stopped by the refusal of others to do what is required. And she succeeds in her task, eventually acknowledged as a woman who has behaved with righteousness What can we learn from the two stories? – that sometimes our lives can be changed by random events, that we may have no power over what happens to us sometimes, but the outcome of these events IS still something we can exercise control over. Whether we choose to see the turning points at all, whether we choose to see them as entirely random or as part of a divine plan is up to us, but either way Joseph uses his talents to make a success of his life in Egypt having arrived there in very unpromising circumstances, and we too can turn discouraging experiences into better ones by using the various skills we each possess. And sometimes life is unfair and people are obstructive to what should rightly happen, and then we have to be more proactive ourselves, as Tamar risked everything to be.

 It so happens that Joseph is the precursor of the leader to be known as the Mashiach ben Yosef, while Tamar’s twins include Perez the ancestor of David and of the Mashiach ben David. (see Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a) Whatever these leaders known as ‘messiah’ may also be, they embody between them righteous behaviour and good leadership.  Rav Kook (1865-1935) described them as the universal and the particular leaders, Joseph took care of the physical needs of the people and spoke the languages of the world, whereas Judah was responsible for the special holiness of the Jewish people. We need both aspects – the universal and the particular, the making the best of what we have and the go-getting to make the best world we can – in order to fulfil our lives and make them the richest we can.

Chanukah Miracles

Chanukah is one of the most historically documented of all the Jewish holidays – we have early sources for it in the books of the Maccabees, and in the works of Josephus. We have accounts in the Talmud and in other rabbinic literature. Every Jew knows the story – that Antiochus Epiphanes forced all the people under his rule to take up Hellenistic practices, that the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of unclean animals replaced the traditional worship in the Temple, that Shabbat and circumcision were outlawed. And while some Jews were eager to take on Hellenism, with its pantheon of gods, and its emphasis on the beauty and strength of the human body, others resisted, and died as martyrs.

Then one day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar there, commanding the Jews to show obedience to Antiochus’ decree.  Mattathias an old priest was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to follow the instructions that he killed him, and then he and his 5 sons retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who led the forces against a series of Antiochus’ armies, and defeated them all. When he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from its defilement, they could only find one small cruse of oil, enough to last just one day, yet when they lit the Temple menorah with it a miracle occurred and the light burned for 8 days.  Since then we celebrate Chanukah in order to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for religious independence, and we retell the miracle of the oil, we light the chanukiah and we eat foods cooked with oil.

That is the story, everyone knows it, yet strangely enough in none of the many early accounts we have of Chanukah do we find the story quite like this.   

Some accounts focus on the facts of war. Other stories place at their centre the personality of individual members of the Hasmonean family; or the terrible persecution suffered under Antiochus; or the willing assimilation by many which almost wrote the Jews out of history.  Other texts talk about cleansing and rededication of the Temple in order for it to be used for Jewish worship once more. 

Different aspects of the story of the Maccabean rebellion have been highlighted at different times. So the rabbis living in Mishnaic times may have felt obliged to mute the story of a successful revolt by a small number of Jews against a powerful enemy; and those of Talmudic times may well have needed the extra emphasis on the Temple rededication, and the reassurance of the presence of God in the world that the story of the miracle would bring.  The issue of religious martyrdom was important in medieval times when the community was decimated in the crusades – and so on. 

            The festival of Chanukah has continued to develop and we continue to tell the story in our particular way.  Every generation engages with the story, infuses the ritual with contemporary meaning, uses the story and the eight days of candlelighting to express something we feel deeply about. Every generation looks at the story of Chanukah, adding their own light and shadow in order to express that which is important to their time. 

A modern response has been to use the festival as an antidote to external cultural influences, to make it, as it were, the Jewish Christmas, with the giving of presents and the eating of rich (and oily) foods. Sadly Chanukah has become a festival our children know more about than the more core biblical ones of Sukkot and Shavuot.  I have no problem with raising the status of Chanukah to combat the alienation caused by the feeling that the whole world is having a party to which we are not invited (and nor should we be, or we risk devaluing the importance and particularity of Christmas), but it does worry me that Chanukah has become a sort of catch all festivity during the dark winter months, and all meaning is overshadowed by celebration.  For Chanukah does have a message for us, and is not simply a convenient peg to enable us to have our own party, Chanukah is all about – indeed the word has the basic meaning of – dedication and renewal. 

            If we parallel the original story of Chanukah in which people moved away from the core values of Jewish tradition and its place of expression, in favour of the values of a world which did not give a worth to the imperatives of increasing holiness through ethical and righteous behaviour, then this is the time of year we should be rededicating and renewing our own Jewish identity – going, as it were, into the sanctuary of our own souls and taking stock of where we are three months after the last stock take of Yom Kippur. Do we need to refocus, to relight our desire to be better than we are being, to rededicate ourselves to our partnership in the work of God?

            Chanukah, often called “Festival of Lights” is more properly a “Festival of Rights” – celebrating the determined fight of a tiny group of people for the basic human right to religious identity, spiritual autonomy and right to define one’s self.

Mattathias and his sons fought a battle whose principle continues to be fought around the world. And this principle is at the core of the Chanukah story. There continue to be refugees fleeing from their countries – from wars which have nothing to do with them, from persecution over their gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, existence….

            The rabbis asked –  “if there was only enough oil for one day, and it stayed alight for 8 days while new oil was being prepared, it is easy to understand the miracle of the last 7 days, but what was the miracle on the first day?”  

They provide a number of possible answers, but for me the one that resonates is that the miracle of the first day was that people still cared enough and believed enough to light the menorah at all, when they knew that realistically it should go out again within a few hours and they would find themselves in deep darkness again. The miracle of Chanukah isn’t some supernatural extension of the burning properties of oil, but that very ordinary human beings lit the oil in the first place, determined to create light even if only in their own locality, even if only for a short time. It would have been so easy to have not bothered, to have said it would make no difference, to have given up.

Miracles are not really about heavenly interventions or supernatural experiences, but ordinary everyday things which we create and experience every time we choose to dedicate ourselves to the values we say we believe in, when we remind ourselves that we are one human race, when we recognise that what binds us is of more importance than what separates us. Miracles happen when people don’t give in to despair or lethargy, or the belief that they can’t make a difference anyway so they shouldn’t even try.

Chanukah is a festival of dedicating ourselves, of learning about ourselves and what we could be capable of, of reminding ourselves that our actions should match our words. As we light our candles and eat our doughnuts and spin our dreidls, let’s give some thought to how our own lives might provide light – even just a small glow – and make our bit of the world a kinder place.