“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
— G.K. Chesterton
I picked up this picture and quote from my friend Aaron, who runs at OpenSource Judaism (click over there and say ‘hi’. Also congratulate him on his new baby.). It reminded me of a similar quote from my friend and teacher Naomi Chase.
She was talking about Chanukah, and the various narratives around it. Being a stuck up know-it-all at the beginning of what was to be a long (and ongoing) Jewish learning experience, I wanted my Chanukah information unvarnished and honest. No more baby stories about oil. I knew better.
- The holiday is 8 days because the last holiday the Hasmoneans (ie: Maccabees) missed was Sukkot. So upon re-dedicating the Temple, they gave a nod to that festival and added an additional day at the end to commemorate their victory.
- The oil story was added later, by Rabbis who were uncomfortable with the reality of Jew-on-Jew violence that the Chanukah story contains.
- The whole holiday was a mere footnote on the calendar until about 150 years ago, when a certain other gift-giving seasonal event became prominent, and some people felt the need to compete.
Naomi listened to my dissertation, nodding in understanding. I was proud that I had learned the grown-up version of the holiday. I didn’t need any babyish…
“What about the miracle?” she asked.
I was at a loss. I had just explained that the miracle story about the oil was added later.
“Yes,” she continued. “But as much as some scholars – ancient or modern – might have been prone to either equivocation or exaggeration, they weren’t in the habit of publicly pronouncing a miracle from God where there was none.” she stated. “If our liturgy talks about miracles as explicitly as it does, then it is incumbent on us – even though we *are* adults and not babies – to determine why they would add that language. The Jews have won a lot of military conflicts through the years, and none of the rest of them have this kind of attention. So I’m asking again: What about the miracle? Al Ha-Nissim and all that, ‘We thank you for the miracles’. What miracle are they talking about?”
Deflated and defeated (but now curious as well), my meager supply of Jewish knowledge used up, I replied “I got nuthin.”
And that’s when she laid it on me. The quote that matches Mr. Chesterton’s above:
“The miracle we find in the story of Chanukah isn’t whether oil lasted for one day, or three, or eight.
It’s that, after all they had been through and all they knew could befall them in the coming weeks and years,
the people still chose to light the menorah in the first place.”
I’ve since connected with the idea that this is the reason we light the candles each year. Not because we are re-enacting the first oil crisis to hit the middle east. No, we are recreating the act that mattered:
The Jewish people: some alienated from their own faith by years of assimilation, others polarized into fanaticism in an effort survive when other groups had been consumed, and still others trying to reconcile where they stand day by day, moment by moment. Both groups healing from hurts (real or perceived) inflicted on them by the other – those people still felt it was worthwhile to clean up their holiest space, to set things right again, and to observe an ancient practice not because they were obsessively holding onto the past, not because they were fearful of anything new, but because they believed it was an essential part of who they were.
More importantly, they believed it was important to express – visibly and publicly – that belief in who they were.
I recognize that many things are the same today as it was then. In the spectrum of the Jewish people, some of us have assimilated, some have clung to tradition, some are in motion between those two points. All of us have an emotional stake in where we are and where we want to be. In our varying views we haven’t always been gracious or supportive or even polite to the other. Hurts – real or perceived – remain unhealed. The Holy Temple – our spiritual center-point that exists today in our heart rather than any fixed place on the planet – still needs to be put back in order.
But this year most of us (even those who have lost hold of any of our other traditions) will stand again in front of our Chanukiah – a reflection of the Temple’s menorah during that initial moment of dedication after destruction. If we reading carefully, the abrupt shift in tense – from past to present – will not be lost on us.
“And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time“
(Originally posted on The EdibleTorah)
By Patrick Aleph
The miracle of Hanukkah, I think, is the fact that we turned a civil war between fundamentalists and moderates into a celebration of potatoes and jelly doughnuts. Let me explain.
While it is true that the Hanukkah narrative involves the rededication of the Temple ransacked by the Syrians, the actual conflict leading up to the temple desecration was a cultural move away from what at the time would be considered traditional Jewish practice, to a hybrid of Jewish law, in the context of Greek culture. The Hellenistic Jews, it seems, were assimilated Jews who wanted to combine the best-of-both-worlds into one practice. And this really made the orthodox Jews angry. War erupted, with the traditionalist Maccabees winning against the Hellenists. Then comes the oil miracle, and now we play religiously sanctioned gambling with chocolate.
“If the Maccabbes were still around, we’d be dead” said Michael, our Alterna-Rebbe. And I agreed. In 2004, a group of rabbis tried to revive the Sanhedrin in Israel, a move that did absolutely nothing but make Westernized Jewry laugh. But I do wonder, could a time ever come where a court of Jewish law will slaughter anyone that doesn’t fit into the religious mold that the traditionalists set, as we are told to do in Exodus 22:17, Leviticus 20:27, Exodus 22:19, Deuteronomy 13:13-19 and Deuteronomy 13:7-12?
The miracle of Hanukkah, it seems, is that we’ve taken a holiday that, when experienced historically would have been the downfall for many cultural Jews, and turned it into a holiday that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over oppressive forces. So put that in your jelly doughnut!
The parsha of Vayeishev has one of the most well-known stories in the Torah. Most Jews, and many Christians, are very familiar with the story of Joseph’s coat of many colors given to him by his loving father Jacob. We are told that Jacob favored Joseph over his other sons because he was a son “of his old age.” The consequences of this favoritism starts out tragically, but by the end of the story it is revealed to be a triumph for the will of G-d. So how does an ancient Jewish story have any guidance for us in the 21st Century – the age of social media?
The first lesson is that although technology may change rapidly, human nature does not. The reason this story resonates with us today is because we recognize the human nature involved. We comprehend that a parent who favors one child over another will most likely cause problems with the other children. We are aware that a child seemingly boasting of this relationship with his siblings in the family will only exacerbate the tensions between them. In short, we can identify dysfunctional families because they also exist today. Human nature has not changed over thousands of years even if we have computers, Twitter, and the internet. Technology does not replace the need to be cognizant of human nature.
The second lesson is a story of courage, one of the finest parts of human nature. Joseph was almost murdered because of his dream interpretations – and yet he persisted. He recognized the truth of his gift from G-d and continued to use it even if it caused others to be envious of him. It was this same gift which drew the attention of Pharaoh who elevated him to the lofty position of administering the Pharaoh’s kingdom. If he had not used the gift due to the trouble it brought upon him, he would not have achieved the status he did. He also would have been unable to use his gift to save his family and hundreds of thousands of human lives (Egyptians).
So how are we to be courageous today? By using our own G-d given gifts to make the world a better place regardless of the risk. Like Joseph we may have to ignore the danger of being out of step with our families, and even our society, in order to persist with the truth. It is very difficult to be the one light shining in a sea of darkness, but we also know that only if we use our gifts will we know the true reason for our existence. With courage, we can be like Joseph and have a very positive impact on perfecting our families and our world.
For almost three months, I have had a sinus infection. Finally I went to my doctor, a nice older guy that my family has seen for years, to see if he could help. I had just changed insurance companies, and did not have my insurance card yet. The doctor’s staff said, “don’t worry, we’ll take you now and deal with the insurance paperwork later.”
I was so happy: a doctor who cares about his patients and doesn’t worry about seeing proof of insurance first.
Unfortunately, the medicine did not work, and I had to go back to the doctor. And this time, things were different. Really different.
The insurance company never sent my paperwork to the doctor, or so my paper file said. The receptionist at the doctor’s office said that they would not treat me if I did not show my insurance card or was willing to pay out of pocket. I refused and asked them to get the insurance company on the phone and sort it out while I wait. They wouldn’t. It was on me to solve this problem, even though I felt like I was going to die.
So I left. Not knowing what to do, I went to the Walgreens down the street and hoped into the Take Care Clinic, a sort of “nurse in a box” operation that does minor medical treatment.
This experience was amazing. Instead of dealing with a receptionist, I simply input my info on a touch screen. After five minutes of waiting, a nurse came out, greeted me by name, and brought me into the room. She asked what my insurance situation was, and I told her the story about my screwball doctor.
She replied, “Oh, this is no problem. I have my computer here. Let’s go on the insurance company website and get all your info.”
Within minutes, she was on the company’s website, printing my card! No haggling, no nagging. After the exam, she put in all my info into her computer, printed my prescription, and said, “OK, your prescription will be filled in about ten minutes.”
This was the best health care I had ever gotten. And the best part: it was so cheap that my insurance company paid for the entire visit. No co-pay.
A few nights later, I got a phone call from a random number. To my surprise, it was the nurse from Walgreens. “Hey Patrick, just wanted to call and see how you are feeling.” In the twenty years my family has been with my old doctor, I never once got a phone call follow up. I was impressed.
I began to think about this in a Jewish context. In a lot of ways, negative experiences with Judaism are like negative experience with doctors. Doctors, like rabbis, are perceived to have the easy life. Nice car, nice house, and a lot of authority to back it all up. Doctors and rabbis have support staff that seem to make everything possible. And if you have a bad experience with a doctor or rabbi, it’s probably your fault in some way, since we assume that either of these professions can do no harm.
And both Judaism and medical care cost a lot. While there’s no such thing as “Jewish insurance”, there is certainly a price to pay for all the kosher food, challah, Jewish daycare, tzedakah, synagogue membership, adult education classes, and other events. And just like the insurance companies and doctor’s staff, there is a bureaucracy in Judaism that keeps some people out, whether it’s the convert getting turned away, the LGBT couple who feels unwelcome, or the Jew of color who doesn’t care about labels like Ashkenazic/Sephardic.
A lot of people want a “top down” solution to the health care dilemma. So is the same with Judaism: looking for a “movement” to unite us all.
Perhaps the solution is neither of these. Perhaps it’s simply a change of mindset. And I can think of a few possible ways.
Less Emphasis on Rabbis. My “doctor” at the clinic was not a doctor at all. But I didn’t care. I needed someone who could tend to my immediate needs, not someone who knew brain surgery. It takes just as long to become a rabbi as a medical doctor. I don’t know about you, but when I need a shoulder to cry on during a funeral or someone to celebrate Shabbat with, I really don’t care what my rabbi thinks about European Jewish Settlements From 1910-1925 or Modern Hebrew Grammer.
Think of the Obvious. A clinic in a pharmacy is a no-brainer. There’s medicine, there’s sick people, get a doctor in there and you’re all set! Sometimes, the most obvious answers are the ones that don’t completely reinvent the wheel: they just put two-and-two together. The best I have seen of this, Jewishly, was an independent minyan that had a lay leader, who happened to live in a local retirement community. Every Shabbat, he picked up other Jewish folks from his community and drove them to “shul”. The retirement home had a great lobby, and he would use it to tutor B’nai Mitzvah kids.
Think Like A Business. I’m the CEO of PunkTorah, so I’m a non-profit guy. But I can see where the profit motive could do great things for the Jewish tradition. Example: Sarah’s Matzah. This Matzah company modeled themselves after Tom’s Shoes, selling “designer” matzah. For every box they sell, they give a box away to a community food bank. It’s capitalism, it’s socialism, it’s Judaism. And it works.
A Little Less Talk, A Little More Action. The talking heads online, on TV and in places of power love to wax poetic about how to “fix” healthcare in this country. And all streams of Judaism are neurotically obsessed with making Judaism relevant for the “new” generation. Perhaps this is a good bottom line: a little less talk, a little more action. PunkTorah started with a YouTube page and is now a non-profit organization with two full time staff members.
What can you start?