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This week we talk about conversion, Michael Jackson, and orthodoxy.
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By Leon Adato (Edible Torah)
“As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.”
Much has been written about Hanukkah’s core message and symbols, and I don’t intend in this little blog to try to compete with any of those writings or the great minds that produced them.
I do want to point out that – at least in my time zone – Hanukkah arrives this year just a week shy (and a minute off) of the earliest Shabbat of the year. The day after next, we at EdibleTorah HQ will kindle the Sabbath flames at 4:39pm. Next week Friday will be the shortest for the entire year – with Shabbat starting at 4:38pm.
There is something engaging for me about this – it might be my penchant for all things comic book and sci-fi – that we will be brightening the darkest days of the year. In my mind, the epic battle will be waged: Hanukkah is able to fight back the forces of darkness (for at least 18 minutes, as the halacha of Hanukkah requires) for 8 days.
But on the darkest day of all, Hanukkah will fall, unable to continue the fight. In that moment, it will be the light of Shabbat, not Hanukkah, that will prevail.
“…and I shall shed my light over dark evil.
For the dark things cannot stand the light,”
– from the original Green Lantern oath
At first glance, Parsha Vayeshev seems like a pretty harsh and destructive time for G-d. Jacob is desperately praying that the generations of family woes will finally be over yet we see intense turmoil with Joseph and his brothers. The brothers eventually rough him up a bit and throw him in a pit. The Torah states that, “And they sat down to eat bread, and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Yishme’alim came from Gilad with their camels carrying aromatic gum, balm, and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). This is the caravan the brothers will sell Joseph into slavery. Let’s put this in perspective: your brothers hate you, they just beat you up, threw you into a pit for who knows how long, took your awesome coat, and sold you into slavery. Why do you care that the caravan you’re gonna be stuck on for your not-so-happy ride down to Egypt smells nice?
Simply put, while we’re rejoicing in our happiness or mourning our destruction, G-d is simply creating. All of the good and bad moments of our lives are simply moments in time of G-d constantly creating the world so that we can all reach our potential. We often don’t see the meaning behind our suffering until days, months, years or even generations later. However, G-d will never allow us to suffer an iota more than is necessary. Joseph’s suffering was necessary so that the humiliation would humble him. Also, this event would bring his family to Egypt, where they would escape the famine. Even further than that, it would bring the rest of Israel down to Egypt where they would eventually have to endure the pain of slavery as a nation; the path in which the Nation of Israel is redeemed, given the torah and brought to Eretz Yisroel. However, despite all that, Joseph was spared the discomfort of the normally pungent smells that would accompany a caravan. This was a small reminder from G-d that all was not lost and that Joseph would not have to suffer any more than absolutely necessary, even if just a small discomfort.
Often when we are struggling through a particularly difficult time we don’t even notice the seemingly small discomforts, or lack thereof. Yet, it is in these details that we might recognize G-d’s hints to us that every moment of mourning or rejoicing in our lives is just a fleeing moment of creation leading us to our full potential. This reminds me of one of my favorite King Solomon stories. The king wanted to humble one of his most trusted wise men, Benaiah. He asked Benaiah to find him a magic ring that would make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy. He knew that no such ring existed but wanted to bring a sense of humility to Benaiah since he was known to brag amongst the other advisors. After months of searching with no luck, Benaiah happened upon an old merchant in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He asked the old man if he knew of such a ring. The man took a ring from his wares and engraved some words. When Benaiah saw the engraving he knew he had found the ring. That night when the king asked him to produce the magic ring, everyone was surprise when Benaiah actually pulled out a ring. King Solmon saw engraved “Gam Ze Ya’avor” – “This too shall pass.” At that moment the king knew that all his wisdom, wealth and power were just fleeting things, and he was saddened by the thought. But our sufferings will pass as well, a thought that should always keep us happy and comforted.
POINT: By Leon Adato
I had the good luck to grow up with Lee Unkrich, who’s been at Pixar since (just about) the beginning. He and I have talked about how the “traditional animation studios” complain that nobody wants to see regular old animated movies any more, they all want CGI. Lee argues (and I agree) that this is utter hogwash. Movie-goers just want a good story. It can be hand-drawn, CGI, mixed media, live action, or sock-puppets. Give people an engaging narrative, Lee assured me, and they will come to the theater.
Why am I telling you this? Because synagogues may be making the same mistake.
Recently, the URJ advertised a course (an online “webinar”, no less) on how to build a youth-friendly congregation” (“What Does a Youth-Friendly Congregation Look Like?“).
I’m skeptical, because I’ve heard and read a lot about this subject in the last few years (being an IT professional AND fairly active with a few synagogues in my area). The discussion takes many forms, from how to make a service more “hip” or “relevant” to ways to use “social media” (which is really just code for “How to get people to click “like” on your Facebook fan page”).
I think these efforts are not only doomed to failure, and not only a waste of effort and resources, but also are completely missing the point. Just as in Lee Unkrich’s comment about movies, people are simply looking for a good story. In the case of a congregation, they are looking for a compelling narrative – a narrative where they can envision themselves as playing a part.
You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).
You don’t create a compelling Jewish community by building a website that auto-syncs the shul calendar to the visitor’s iPhone.
My real beef with this thinking is that it’s disingenuous from the very start. There is a huge gap between wanting a congregation which is just plain welcoming to everyone who comes through the doors and one which says “OK, let’s go after THAT demographic!”
As my friend Doug says: “It’s like the old quote by Jean Giraudoux. ‘The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made’. All of the techniques to build a youth-friendly congregation are actually just ways to fake that you want a ‘youth friendly congregation’ – because otherwise you would already have it!”
Doug highlighted another flaw in the logic: “Do you REALLY want a youth friendly congregation? Be prepared to be less comfortable yourself, particularly if you need to resort to webinars to figure out how to do that, because you are, obviously, not part of the youth culture yourself and, if you succeed, will create a community where they will be comfortable and you will not.”
Changing your congregation – or even building a programming track for a sub-community – that is specifically for one demographic has the built-in pitfall of being, almost by it’s definition, NOT appropriate for other sub-groups within your organization. Sometimes this is normal, natural and organic. Your “Tot-Shabbat” program is pretty much self-explanatory and doesn’t include the “hip single 20-somethings”; and even a group as all-encompassing as a Temple Sisterhood has easily recognizable and logical limits (ie: no guys). But beyond those examples, why build boundaries where there don’t need to be any?
“Making your congregation more youth-friendly” falls into the trap identified by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in his book Rethinking Synagogues , where he says
“I charge synagogues with being a market, not a sacred community; hewing to an ethnic and corporate model that was outmoded twenty years ago; and pursuing an atomistic existence (as if they need not collaborate with each other or with other Jewish organizations).”
What I’m getting at is this: I don’t want to see synagogues waste precious time and resources building a “youth-friendly” environment. Or a “singles-friendly” environment. Or an “old-fart-friendly” environment. I am also not advocating being “friendly to all” because – while it’s a good goal – it’s far too vague to be acted upon and, as Rabbi Hoffman points out,
“…despite the claims of the regulars, synagogues are by and large neither welcoming nor warm;…”
Instead, I would like to see congregations put effort into removing elements that make them youth-hostile (or singles-un-friendly, or old-fart-exclusionist). That’s not the same thing as being friendly to a specific group, either. In removing un-friendly barriers, you haven’t STOPPED doing what was good and successful for the core existing group (unless part of that success was in excluding other folks, in which case we need to have a talk.). And once the barriers are removed, you can use some means (yes, that can include whiz-bang internet tools like niTwit and MyFace) to let youth know that they are, at least, not unwelcome…in fact, would be welcomed into the community…on their own terms, as a human who has to bend a little to the others in the community, but not be broken in the process. Just as the OTHER members of the community are going to have to bend (enough with the complaining about the kids with piercings already, Mildred!) but without being forced to break.
As The Rebbetzin says, “Offering people a way to participate that is meaningful to them is the key to building membership. Then use social media to keep them connected.”
So my advice? Skip the webinar and just take a walk around your organization (whether that’s a building, a website, a mission statement, or a weekly service). Look at it like you really mean it; look at it like you want to see what it REALLY is, rather than just what you remember it was or wish it was or believe it is in your heart if only other people could see it the way you do.
Instead, YOU see it the way THEY do.
And then be prepared to start breaking down a few walls.
COUNTERPOINT: By Rabbi Susan Stone
Let me start off by saying that I really like kids. A lot. I especially like them when they are running through the halls at temple or boarding buses at 5:00 a.m. on their way to youth group events in distant cities.
More about them in a minute.
So, here I am in mid October. I am sitting at my desk after a morning of hospital visitation and lunch with an old friend. (He’s less impressed with my being a rabbi than those in the congregation I serve. It is a good thing.) I’m typing this while waiting for a conference call to begin. The bat mitzvah family just changed their 6:45 pm appointment to 5:00. It means that my son and I can grab dinner before the 7:30 mikveh association meeting.
It’s a good thing that our Executive Director and office manager have been in the building to get the letter from the chair of the Women’s Committee that I need to edit to go with the baskets they send to our newest members on Chanukah.
But back to the conference call – it is my second one this week. The first was a study of texts from the Qu’ran. This one is a gathering of rabbis who are working in interim situations. We are meeting with a coach from the Interim Ministers Network – a minister with extensive experience in what is an emerging field in Jewish life.
Elsewhere in the building, the Educator is following up on children who haven’t shown up for Sunday School yet this year. The Family Educator is working on logistics for the 8th grade Shul-In (overnight program) with her counterpart from another congregation down the street. They both need to remind the students that there will be no class on October 31st so the teachers can attend an in-service program they designed.
The custodian is occupied with the landscapers, trying to get ready for winter and installing the new plantings donated by congregants in memory of a beloved parent. We really want to get those in the ground before winter – they hide the gas well which was drilled last year. The Board negotiated that contract and we hope it will provide the Temple with some income. One of the groups which rent space from us during the day is packing up; my guess is that they’ll be back next week.
Now that I’ve laid out all of that, I’ll get back to the issue at hand: why I think it is great – and not insincere or disingenuous – that congregations build youth-friendly environments.
We need youth-friendly environments because my son will only watch Dancing With the Stars when Kurt Warner is on. We need a youth-friendly environment because teenage girls won’t shop in the same stores as their mothers. And I will go a step further – I think it is great that there is a seminar of building a youth-friendly environment in a congregation BUT it doesn’t go far enough. I want a youth-friendly department because teenagers do get obnoxious and other people’s adorable children mispronouncing the Sh’ma while trying to lead services is only cute the first twenty three times.
But that is not all. Leon claims he’s skeptical. He should be. And it is true that,
“You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).”
But he misses the point. Sometimes it has to be about checklists and clumsy use of social media – and artificiality and even insincerity. And yes, it is going to make people uncomfortable.
Actually, I hope people are made incredibly uncomfortable. I want our longest time members to wonder what is becoming of “their” congregation. I want them to complain a lot and then I want them to stop and watch what is happening and I want them to be glad. And then I want them to still attend those functions and services and activities that they have loved for the last 50 years (and 50 more, please God).
And then I want them to realize that being youth-friendly isn’t as good as just being friendly.
Do I wish we didn’t have to do this? I do – I wish we could build Leon’s utopia. But plants need to be planted and conference calls endured and visits made and programs planned. So much of the business of running a congregation is business. I acknowledge that people needing to be met where they are is more important that gas wells (unless you want to pay the bills on time). I also acknowledge that we live in a world that is trending toward increasingly personal attentions being paid in group settings. Yes, we should work against it but while we are doing that we cannot ignore the trend either. Our congregations need to be contemporary (while upholding ancient values of course). So, once again, we are called upon not to chose either/or but to do both/and: to serve our constituents and then make them uncomfortable about being so well served. Then we can plant the bulbs, pray that the roof holds for another winter and mail the publicity. Yes, we have to take temporizing measures and live in the real world – and also work and hope for better.
And I will still read the latest research and try new things and dream of bottom-up rebuilding.
Do I wish we were more perfect? Of course I do. I wish we could be holistic and inclusive and seamless and always engaging. But our synagogues have been the homes for our souls and the one and only symbol of our endurance for many a century. Let’s make them better – of course! But let’s also celebrate the beauty that radiates from their imperfections every day of the year.
Rabbi Susan Stone leads Suburban Temple – Kol Ami in Cleveland Ohio. She has been a congregational Rabbi for over 25 years (having been ordained at the age of seven, of course). In her practically non-existent spare time she worries about her two sons. She also loves long walks on the beach, which are sadly in short supply in Cleveland.
(cross-posted on PeelAPom)
~This is an excerpt from the Tevet Wheel of the Year Guide for Rosh Chodesh.
Subscribe for free to receive the entire guide~
How do we know the difference between good and bad judgment? How do we know the choices we make are the right ones? What do we allow to influence us? What we do allow to blur our vision? What do we use to clear our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to turn back to the right path? Where do we cross the line between right and wrong, and do the ends justify the means? These are the questions that the Tribe of Dan, the tribe associated with the month of Tevet (טֵבֵת), asks us.
Dan (דָּן) is the son of Jacob and Rachel, through her handmaiden Bilhah. He is the full brother of Naphtali. Some midrash say that Dan is the one who suggested dipping Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat (the astrological symbol of Tevet – גדי) because he hated him for giving “evil” reports to Jacob about the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. (Jewish Encyclopedia) Dan is represented, historically, by two different emblems. He, and the tribe, are represented by scales because the name “dan” means judgement. He, and the tribe, are also represented by a snake or serpent because of the blessing from Jacob in Genesis 49:17, which actually contains both the snake (49:17) and judgment (49:16) themes.
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, so that his rider falleth backward.
דָּן, יָדִין עַמּוֹ–כְּאַחַד, שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.יְהִי-דָן נָחָשׁ עֲלֵי-דֶרֶךְ, שְׁפִיפֹן עֲלֵי-אֹרַח–הַנֹּשֵׁךְ, עִקְּבֵי-סוּס, וַיִּפֹּל רֹכְבוֹ, אָחוֹר
When we explore the Tribe of Dan through history and legend we see a mixed story. We see Dan associated with the serpent. We see Oholiab, one of the two master craftsman of the wilderness tabernacle (Ex 31:6-11). We see Huram-Abi, the master craftsman of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron 2:12-13 & 4:11-22). We see Sampson, who is a hugely flawed hero. We see the Northern Tribes that innovated, but then according to the prophets lapsed into idolatry.
But our challenge is to see with clear eyes (עֵינַיִם), not to be turned by the evil eye (עַיִן רָעָה) towards anger (זַעַף). Is the snake (נָחָשׁ) evil and inherently bad? Or is the snake set in our path to offer us information and see what choices we make with it? Is the snake’s role to see what kind of judgement we exercise? Yes, there was a snake in Eden, but Moses is also instructed by G!d(dess) to create a brass/bronze snake (נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת) to heal the people in the wilderness from the fiery serpent angels (הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים) set upon them by G!d(dess). (Numbers 21:6-9) Any Israelite who looked upon the brass serpent Moses created were healed.
“The month of Tevet, the month of the tribe of Dan, relates to the growing-up process, from a state of immaturity to a state of maturity. Immaturity is characterized by the “evil eye,” while maturity is characterized by the “good eye.” The tribe of Dan represents the initial state of immaturity in the soul that “grows-up” during the month of Tevet. Dan means “to judge.” Initially, he judges reality and others critically, with severe judgment (the “evil eye”). This is the nature of one who is spiritually immature. Dan is likened to a snake, who bites with the venom of anger. The “evil eye” is the eye of the snake. The rectification of Dan is his engaging in the battle of holy anger against evil anger. Our sages teach us that only one from the soul-root of Dan can spontaneously jump up and kill the evil snake–”one like him, killed him.” Nachash (“snake”) = 358 = Mashiach. The holy power of Dan reflects a spark of Mashiach. In the Zohar we are taught that the commander-in-chief of the army of Mashiach will come from the tribe of Dan. … Positive anger expresses the deepest care and concern of the soul that reality become good.” (Inner.org)
Now the lesson of Dan begins to become clear. Moses is instructed by G!d(dess) to create an idol, to make a graven image (פֶסֶל) that represents something of heaven or earth. He does it and is not punished. On the other hand, King Jeroboam ignores the council of his people and of his own volition decides to create two golden calves for the people to worship, invents new holidays, and installs his own priests — and he is punished (1 Kings 12:1-33).
Oholiab and Huram-abi create ritual objects for religious service, some that seem to cross over into representations of things from heaven or earth – but they are given not just knowledge – but Binah – understanding. They are blessed.
Understanding comes with maturity. Good judgment comes with maturity. The snake is not evil; its temptation. As children, like Adam and Chava were in Eden, it is easy to be tempted. But consider this too. Maybe Chava grew up. Maybe she made a considered decision that it was time to grow up. Maybe Adam didn’t, “she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” (Gen 3:12) It is often said that girls mature more rapidly than boys, but even then they may be lacking the understanding (בִּינָה) of experience. Maybe Chava was mature enough to make a decision for herself, but not mature enough to know that Adam would just eat or understand the implications her decision might have beyond herself.
In Tevet, Dan challenges us to look at the decisions we make for ourselves that impact only us and then the decisions we make that impact others. Are we mature enough to know the difference? Do we have just knowledge or do we have understanding? Are our actions good ones? If we are angry is it because we are immature and don’t really understand, or is it because we see clearly an injustice in the world that needs to be rectified? Use this month to explore the choices you make in your life. Tevet and the tribe of Dan take us into the Winter Solstice ( Tefukat Tevet), the darkest of days — which this year will be darker than most because there is also a total lunar eclipse.
Light born from darkness,
dawn born from night,
hope born from quiet
waiting for the light.
Spring born from winter,
spark struck from sun,
strength born from calling
for the spring to come.
Tonight the dark is waiting,
longing to be gone.
Tonight the earth is turning,
facing toward the dawn. (RK’Jill Hammer)
( Listen to a melody created for this chant by Ketizrah)
Will you find understanding in the darkness or will you find fear and anger? May you find blessing, strength, wisdom and understanding in the darkening of the days and the knowledge that the light will return.
Want more insights into Tevet?
~This is an excerpt from the Tevet Wheel of the Year Guide for Rosh Chodesh.
Subscribe for free to receive the entire guide~