Every three or four years, more or less, we read this week's parashah / Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding New Year's Eve . . . so we are watching the book of Breishit/Genesis come to a close along with the secular year.
It's an evocative combination: A calendar year comes to a close, the first book of Torah comes to a close, the life of a patriarch comes to a close . . .
Like the time leading up to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, this week or so in the secular calendar is a time for both looking back and looking forward. Amidst the unrelenting hype of post-Christmas sales, we are meant to consider the events and actions and relationships of our lives and resolve to do better. Despite the ads by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, I imagine that these new year's resolutions should go beyond the number of pounds we promise ourselves we'll lose in the next calendar year.
The end of the book of Breishit/Genesis marks the end of a foundational text of the Torah. In Breishit we witness the creation of the world culminating in the creation of humanity and the establishment of the principle of Shabbat. We watch the first bumpy steps in the relationship between God and the most uncontrollable element of creation: curious, vindictive, disobedient, faithful, courageous, loyal, principled . . . people.
At the end of his long and eventful life, Jacob lies on his deathbed surrounded by his family in the closing chapters of Breishit. Jacob metes out judgment. At the end of his life, he reviews not his own behavior and actions, but those of his progeny. Son by son, Jacob evaluates past actions and comment's on that son's character: Reuben is "unstable as water"; Shimon and Levi are "tools of lawlessness . . . cursed be their anger . . . I will scatter them in Israel"; Judah--"the scepter shall not depart from Judah...and the homage of peoples shall be his"; Asher's "bread shall be rich". And like his father, Isaac, delivers a death-bed blessing to a younger son: to Joseph he says "The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills . . . . "
In Israel, New Year's Eve is referred to as "Sylvester", a nod to the non-Jewish roots of the festival. According to the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the festival of the last night of the year called Sylvester in Israel and in some European countries is associated with Pope Sylvester I ( who served as Pope from 314 to 335) who died during the night of December 31st - January 1st. The date is, thus, a sacred day of remembrance within the Catholic world, and has become an international day of festivity since the Gregorian calendar became the internationally accepted standard with no thematic connection to Pope Sylvester, of course.
A week like this, when we re-watch the death-bed scene of Jacob's and are encouraged to contemplate the consequences of our actions by virtue of the ticking over of another calendar year, we should consider, perhaps, what Jacob did not: the aftermath of his own actions.
When Jacob died, surrounded by his twelve sons (and, one supposes, his daughter, Dina, although she is not mentioned) the Torah reports: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (50:1) Reuben, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Shimon, Levi, Naphtali, Benjamin, Zevulun, Judah . . . nothing. By this account, Jacob has left behind one bereaved and eleven disaffected sons. Probably in shock at hearing their father's final words to them.
A few verses later, and we find those eleven brothers turning to Joseph contending that their father had left instructions that Joseph was to forgive his brothers their offense of selling him into slavery and then they offered themselves as slaves to Joseph. Jacob has left behind a dysfunctional family whose only hope for healing is found in the favored son, Joseph. Joseph does indeed, bless his brothers will healing words: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--the survival of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children." (50: 19-21)
It is not his father's love that has inspired Joseph to such maturity and perspective, but the opportunity provided to him by God to reach for, and attain, lofty goals . . . to feed those who might otherwise starve. From such experience, the dysfunction of his own family must seem easily addressed: compassion comes easily to Joseph after all his life experience.
There is value in taking the time to stop and consider our actions and our behavior and our relationships from time to time. If that contemplation is triggered by the ticking over of the Gregorian calendar year, great! Any moment of self-reflection that draws us into an evaluation of that which motivates us, inspires us, shapes our actions and guides us in our relationships with those we care about is a good moment, whichever calendar we're looking at.
We were asked to pause for a few moments this morning to remember, or pray for, the 26 precious souls lost in last week's horrific shooting. I turned on the television and listened to the bells of the Newtown church tolling slowly, majestically, 26 times.
How indescribably, inexplicably tragic.
For the families, for the communities of Newtown, the mourning, the pain--once the shock wears off-- are beyond imagining. They fell victim to a severely mentally ill young man who had access to a powerfully dangerous weapon.
Humans have vivid imaginations and like it or not we project ourselves into situations like this and can't help but touch the edges of the emotions felt by those truly affected.
We are vulnerable at times like this and I find the rhetoric emanating from news media and a wide range of organizations to be disturbing.
This is not a "time of crisis." No movement or trend was highlighted by the Newtown shooting. Yes, some weak patches in the fabric of our society were exposed, but no one outside of Sandy Hook came under a direct, or even indirect, threat when that young man shot his way into that school. It is terribly disturbing that a school following all reasonable security precautions (as is the case with Sandy Hook School) cannot anticipate and defend themselves against an attack like this. Therein, of course, lies our terror.
This may be a moment for some facts. Last Friday, elementary school children in about 67,000 public elementary schools around the United States and perhaps another 25,000 or so private elementary schools around the United States all got up, ate breakfast (I wish....), went to school and got home safely. There was a heart-stopping tragedy in one school.
It's a little harder to figure out how many legally-owned firearms there are in the United States. A little Googling yielded these two (unverified) statements:
The Small Arms Survey in 2007 by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva estimated 270 million firearms in the US.
There have been 156,577,620 gun registry applications submitted to the National Firearms Administration (NFA) from Nov 1998 to Nov 2012.
So, last Friday, approximately 200 million legally-owned weapons were not used to kill 26 innocent and defenseless people.
Concerns about responsibility and treatment of the mentally ill in our country are also raised in the context of the Sandy Hook shootings. It is even harder to come up with a statistic for the number of "mentally ill" in the United States because the term "mental illness" is comprised of a wide range of diagnoses while a legally owned weapon is a legally owned weapon. It is clear, though, that the percentage of the mentally ill who are prone to violence (against others, not themselves) is minuscule. So, last Friday, many, many thousands of people suffering from significant mental disease did not harm to others or to themselves last Friday morning.
So where does this leave us? I hope none of us here, in Rhode Island, are experiencing a sense of immediate personal threat to ourselves or our families. If you feel that your level of anxiety or that or your children is more intense, more sustained than an object review of the facts might suggest, I encourage you to reach out for help. For those not affiliated with Torat Yisrael, you will find, I hope, many resources readily at hand through school systems and faith community structures, Jewish Family Services organizations and local mental health facilities. For our TY family, I am always available to you (email@example.com) as is our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Our tradition teaches us that God is our most consistent, eternal source of strength and perspective at times like this. I offer you two resources for prayer and contemplation: Psalm 121 and a prayer I composed especially with families with children in mind.
It's a sticky wicket, this one . . . on the one hand, our tradition teaches us that an integral part of our celebration of Hanukah should be "pirsumei nisa" an Aramaic phrase (most rabbinic literature is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew) which means "publicizing the miracle.
On the other hand, it is the principle of "the separation of religion and state" that has made the United States the multi-faith and multi-cultural haven that it is.
On yet another hand, for all that there is no institution of state religion here in the United States, there is certainly a presumption of a cultural religion . . . let us count the ways this is a Christian country.
Let's take a look at all the "hands."
Pirsumei Nisa / Publicizing the Miracle
This principle, generated in the Talmud, establishes the practice of lighting the Hanukah menorah in a window, doorway or entrance to a courtyard in order that anyone passing through the public thoroughfare will see the lit menorah and be reminded of the miracle of Hanukah with which God blessed the people of Israel. Great importance is attached to this practice in the view of the sages of the Talmud: should one need to make a choice . . . due to limited personal funds . . . between buying wine for Shabbat kiddush or oil for lighting the menorah we are instructed to purchase the oil for the Hanukah menorah because it is a greater mitzvah to publicize God's miracle than to sanctify the day in private!
No Established Religion in the United States
The founding ideologues of The United States embodied their rejection of the status of the Anglican Church in the text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
This isn't exactly the "separation of church and state" principle that we speak of most frequently, but we do clearly see established in this amendment the principle that there will be no state religion or state church in the United States. Furthermore, every faith community is guaranteed, through this amendment, the free exercise of their religion.
In the context of the December holidays, then, we could say that the "correction" to lighting a Christmas tree on a City Hall lawn (or a Statehouse Rotunda) would be the lighting of a Hanukah menorah. If both Christianity and Judaism are acknowledged through official civic celebrations, then there is no transgression of the First Amendment because equal acknowledgement of both faiths means that no one faith is given official precedence.
Of course, Islam, Buddhism, Universalist Unitarian, Hinduism and lots of other religions aren't recognized at all in this dance, but that's another blog for another day.
The United States is culturally a Christian country
So, if there is no official state religion, why do municipalities, state governments and even presidents of the United States light Christmas trees? (Search the keyword Hanukah on this blog page for my take on the "Holiday Tree" issue). I think it's because the United States is culturally a Christian country. Given the choice between not lighting a Christmas tree or lighting a Christmas tree and a Hanukah menorah, the overwhelming majority of American citizens and American elected officials prefer to light both . . . because it would be intolerable to light none. Even though there is no official state religion in this country.
Back to Pirsumei Nisa
So why object to the lighting of a Hanukah menorah in public places? Is that not the practice established by the talmudic sages when they discussed Pirsumei Nisa?
I don't think so.
When I place my Hanukah menorah in the window of my livingroom and light my Hanukah candles for anyone on Roger Williams Circle to see, I am declaring that in this house the Hanukah miracle is treasured, is a source of pride, is a meaningful reminder of Jewish identity, is a declaration of the power of God's light during dark days. That is the intent of Pirsumei Nisa.
When a Hanukah menorah is lit on public property, local, state and government officials are declaring, "We are inclusive here. We celebrate our minorities."
A quintessentially Jewish object and act is redefined in civic terms at that moment of public menorah-lighting.
I prefer the Jewish values associated with the Hanukah menorah in my window.
My dream was to issue a joint statement of compassionate concern for the residents of Israel and Gaza and a rejection of the connection between terrorism and faith with my Christian and Muslim colleagues here in Rhode Island. My fellow dreamers were the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of The Rhode Island State Council of Churches and Imam Farid Ansari, the President of The Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement. I am, as many of you know, in addition to being Torat Yisrael's rabbi, also privileged to serve as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
On a Thursday in November, as the ink was barely dry on the Israel-Gaza cease fire, the three of us gathered with additional colleagues and together forged the statement below on the left. I had the privilege of following our joint statement with my own personal statement at a press conference on December 3rd. My statement is on the right:
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.