Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on Chanukah

As I sit here trying to write a post about Chanukah, a number of things come to mind: Menorah, candles, light, dreidels, Chanukah gelt, presents, latkes, miracles, Maccabees. If I had to sum up Chanukah in two words, though, it would not be any of those. However, before I get there, I am easily distracted by three videos, which you probably have already seen at least one of, since they have been widely circulated:

1. The Maccabeats' new video, “Candlelight,” a parody of the Mike Tompkins version of the song “Dynamite,” which has hit over 100,000 views in less than 5 days.
2. The Six13/ NCSY Chanukah Video.
3. Aish’s Charlie Harary video about Chanukah entitled, “Chanukah’s Secret to Greatness.”

Now that I got that out of the way, here are some of my thoughts this Chanukah:

• I find it interesting that both the Maccabeats and Six13/NCSY videos feature covers of secular songs, considering the entire point of Chanukah was to fight the slow assimilation which began with the incorporation of Greek ideas and culture, which are against Torah values, into the Jewish world. This is a great demonstration of our ability to take what is secular and uplift it and make it religious. We are so lucky that we are not forced to assimilate, that today it is possible to be a part of secular society (to a certain extent anyway) while still holding strong and remaining true to Torah values.

• Thinking about sufganiot, I noticed how they are the opposite of regular donuts. Most donuts (Entenmanns, Dunkin Donuts etc.) are all about the outside circle, with a hole in the middle. Sufganiot, on the other hand, feature a filling inside the donut. Perhaps this is indicative of the secular focus on the external and on appearances, versus the Jewish approach of who a person is on the inside. Don’t judge a donut by its cover.

If I were to sum up my view of Chanukah in two words, it would be: Potential and Faith (or rather, since Hebrew has the more accurate connotation of what I’m trying to say, Koach and Emuna.) Both of those aspects are connected to the fact that the main symbol of Chanukah is the Menorah/candles/light. Rabbi Akiva Tatz (and others) writes that time is not linear, but rather circular, and that certain times of year contain different potentials. This explains the idea that Avraham kept Pesach, which seems impossible since Pesach is a holiday to commemorate the exodus from Egypt which had not yet occurred. (Speaking of whether the Avot kept Torah, and speaking of videos that are being widely circulated, if you haven’t seen this one, check it out.) Springtime, the time of Nissan, has potential for redemption and freedom. Which is why I don’t believe it is coincidence that the State of Israel was established in 1948 around Pesach time. This theory also explains why the two Batei Hamikdash were destroyed on the exact same day. The months of Tamuz and Av have often been bad times for the Jewish people- it is inherent in that time period.

So what is the potential for this time of year? It is a time of seeing light through darkness. Which is why I find it very interesting that Christmas lights are everywhere. This time of year is strongly tied to the idea of light. Now more than ever is a time to focus on hope amidst despair, of finding direction and clarity amidst confusion. Sometimes life is dark and you don’t know which way to go, or sometimes we forget. Sometimes life is dark and it seems like things will never be good again. All it takes is a small flame. We have the ability to light up the darkness. How? The Torah is compared to light and fire. Through Torah we can find our way. That is why to me, Chanukah means: Potential. The potential to hold on to hope, to light up the darkness.

And as I listen to Miami Boys’ Choir’s, “Light Up the Nights,” as I do each year around Chanukah time, I think about the candles, flames, and fire. Fire is great because it provides both light and warmth, two things that are lacking in the winter months. Fire is another symbol of “potential,” as it has the potential to be positive- to be used for heat, warmth, for light, and for cooking and baking food. Yet fire also has the potential to be destructive, to burn, to be used in a negative way. And since I can relate everything to shidduchim, I’ll note that it is interesting that the way to create fire is to rub two items together, for example the match and the matchbox. Fire is when two come together as one. This is evident in the names for man and woman- Ish and Isha. If you take out the “yud” from “Ish,” you get Aish, Fire, and if you take out the “Heh” from “Isha” then you get Aish, Fire. The Yud plus the Heh is Hashem’s name.

The second word that I use to describe Chanukah, faith/emunah, is also quite connected to the idea of light in the darkness. When things are dark and cold and dreary, it sometimes seems like things will never get better. Just imagine the Jewish people before the miracle of Chanukah. Things were bad, there were terrible decrees, Jews were being persecuted, and the holy Beit Hamikdash was defiled. Things must have seemed hopeless. But the Jews believed in Hashem, they had faith that He would save them, despite all odds, even though it seemed impossible. And Hashem made a miracle for them. Hashem lit up the darkness. Chanukah is all about how Hashem can always save us from any situation, and light up the darkness for us.

On this Chanukah, may we all be zoche to light up the darkness, to have clarity, to hold on to hope and not fall into despair, to develop and maintain deep, unshakable faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu and to absorb all of the important messages that Chanukah has to teach us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every year as it gets closer to Thanksgiving, it seems someone will bring up the topic about whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving or not. It is a secular holiday on the one hand, but on the other hand, as the Rabbi of my shul points out each year, being thankful is a concept that is emphasized in Judaism. He points out that the root of the word “Yehudi,” Jew, is “LiHodot,” to thank. A big part of being Jewish is being Makir Tov, recognizing the good things that we have, the good things that others have done for us, and the good things that Hashem has given us, and being thankful.

As a side note, I would hardly call it “celebrating” Thanksgiving as the only thing it entails is eating a meal with turkey, usually with your family. Compared to various complex Jewish rituals that are part of Jewish holidays, this hardly seems like it can be called “celebrating,” but if you want to debate whether to eat turkey or not, go right ahead. I just do what my family does, and we have a traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, the whole thing.

No matter what your minhag is, I think it is apropos to make a list for some of the many things that I am thankful to Hashem for. Hashem has given us so much good, and it is a great chance to recognize that. So, in no particular order, here are some things that I am thankful for:

• My family, both my immediate family and extended, who are kind, thoughtful, loving, and always supportive of my decisions.

• My amazing friends, who are kind, accepting, and who are there for me no matter what. The friends who make me laugh, the friends who are nearby and far away, the friends who I can have long, deep, meaningful conversations with.

• Health: This is something I tend to take for granted more than other things for some reason. It’s so easy for me to forget that it’s a miracle when everything works right. Thank you, Hashem, that I am able to see, hear, smell, move, walk, talk, and generally function well.

• Torah/Being Jewish/Faith in Hashem. Without these my life would feel empty and meaningless. Learning Torah and my relationship with Hashem bring me joy, happiness, and also help me get through the tough times. If I didn’t know that Hashem loves me and created me for a reason and is watching over me, then I would probably have a break down when things get tough.

• Tefillah. It is amazing Hashem gave us the ability to talk to Him and He answers us. The fact that we can do this is such a gift.

• Good food: Have you ever had a cold and not been able to taste food? Hashem created the world that we need to eat to survive. But He didn’t have to make food taste so good! Delicious food is a huge chessed from Hashem and I am quite thankful for yummy food!

• Shabbos. As I get older I appreciate shabbos more and more and more. I thought I appreciated shabbos in college- what a great break from studying and tests and homework! But now that I’m done with college, I find that I appreciate shabbos even more and I would not have thought that was possible!

• Vacation. Enough said.

• Clarity. Whenever I have clarity, I have to take a step back and realize how wonderful it is to not be confused and unsure. Feeling unsettled is like being in the dark, and when the light is turned on, things are absolutely beautiful.

• Running Water. What did they do before there was running water? Anytime you needed water, which is often, it was a whole process. Imagine how much harder it was to do things like, shower, go to the bathroom, laundry, washing dishes.

• Cell Phones. What did people do before cell phones? Being able to communicate with anyone anywhere anytime is definitely something I take for granted.

• Music/iPods/MP3 Players. Music has the power to uplift you like nothing else in the entire world. And iPods- because I remember the days when I had to schlep around a million CDs with me wherever I went if I wanted to listen to more than one CD.

• A perfectly timed message. Have you ever had the experience that someone said the exact right thing to you at the exact right time? You know, when you go, “Wow! I really needed to hear that right now!” I am thankful for the times that Hashem sends me messages that I need to hear, and I get the message.

• Sleep/ mornings/new days. Sleep is one of the things I am thankful for a lot. Not just because it is great to be well rested, but because without sleep we wouldn’t have a break and we’d just keep going and going without any new beginnings. Each day is a new day and a new chance and you don’t have to be who you were the day before, and you can just start new. Sleep is a chance to leave the past in the past and move on.

I am sure I am missing MANY things, and this list could go on forever. So today, on Thanksgiving, I say: Thank you, Hashem, for all of the wonderful things you have given me! Thank you.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Press the "Shuffle" button

That song was stuck in my head again. My head swayed gently to the melody, until I got up to the part where I couldn’t remember the words. Or the tune for that matter. Wait, how did it go next? Where did I even hear that song, I wondered. It was a Jewish song so I knew I couldn’t have heard it anywhere. It kept getting stuck my head, but I only knew part of the song. Don’t you hate it when that happens? I kept desperately trying to remember how it might go next, or at least to remember where I heard it so I could listen to it again. That way it could get stuck in my head properly and not all choppy. Unfortunately, I could not figure out how the song went. And it might not have bothered me quite so much, but it kept getting stuck in my head and though I tried pretty hard, I could not get it out!

Fast forward a few weeks.

I was sitting on the floor in the corner of my room, taking a break by relaxing and listening to music. I had put my iPod on shuffle, letting myself be surprised by whatever song was randomly selected. And that’s when it came on. That song! I opened my eyes and sat up alarmed and stared down at my iPod in shock. There it was! The song that had been stuck in my head for weeks, which it turned out was on an old Miami Boys Choir CD that I had purchased ages ago, and apparently hadn’t listened to very much. A huge smile involuntarily spread across my face, and I could not stop grinning. I listened attentively as the song played through, taking in each note, each word as though it was just for me. There are many songs that make me happy, but I can’t put into words the intense joy and pleasure I received from listening to that song.

It was not because the song was such a great song. The song is relatively decent, but not incredible. What was amazing was the discovery that the song that I spent so much time searching for, was in fact something that I already had, it was already in my possession. I longed to hear the song again so badly, only to realize that it was already on my iPod! My search was over. It had been bothering me so much, and now, not only did I get to hear the entire song to hear how the rest of it went, but I could listen to it over and over and over. Which of course I did.

This happened a long time ago, but I put my iPod on shuffle recently and this song came up, and it reminded me of how happy I was when I heard it that time. Every time I hear that song I remember how intensely happy I was at that moment and the potential intense happiness that occurs when you discover you already have what you want. When you appreciate something that belongs to you, and you don’t have to go searching for it or chasing it down, but it belongs to you, it is a great feeling. It can be painful to want something intensely, but not be able to have it. The reverse is simply wonderful. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have. We forget how much we would want it if we didn’t have it, whether it is something significant such as our health or food to eat and clothes to wear, or whether it is something insignificant such as a favorite mug that we assign value to.

At the beginning of the book “Battle Plans,” by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller and Sara Yocheved Rigler (a great book by the way, which I highly recommend!), a book about how to fight your Yetzer Harah, they quote the Maharal who says that the Yetzer Harah is the voice that tells you, “You don’t have what you need.” The Yetzer Harah emphasizes that something is lacking in your life, and so you try to fill that lack inappropriately and so you sin. They write that one solution to this problem is to realize that Hashem has given you everything you need. I thought this was a great point, and have found it to be true. I find that when I focus on what is missing in my life I’m not as happy as when I focus on all the amazing things that Baruch Hashem are in my life.

A lesson I learned was that sometimes we need to put our mind on “shuffle.” We need to dig through to find the things we take for granted, to try to seek out the positive, instead of playing the same songs that we always listen to, focusing on the same negative thoughts over and over. The good thoughts are in there somewhere, we just have to find them, although sometimes they show up when we expect it the least.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Dear Jews of the World:

Just pick and choose which Mitzvot you would like to keep. Sure. Why not? Some Mitzvot are too hard for you? Toss them. No big deal. Do whatever you want to do, because it is all about you anyway, right? Or perhaps maybe, just maybe, it is about dedication to G-d? I mean, do you really believe in Hashem? Do you really believe in Torah? If you do believe, why aren’t you strong enough to keep everything? If you don’t believe, why pretend to when it comes to certain mitzvot? Why do you keep shabbos, but not tzinus? Why do you keep Taharat Hamishpacha, but cheat on your taxes? Why do you do chessed and work on tikkun olam, but don’t keep shabbos? Why do you keep Kosher, but speak Lashon Harah? Why are you so makpid with Limmud Torah, yet so lacking in Bein Adam L’Chavero? Why do you fast on Yom Kippur, yet do not keep anything else to the point where you eat chametz on Pesach? Why do you teach your kids Jewish values, yet engage in acts of sexual harrassment? How can you do some things, but not others? Serve Hashem, or don’t serve Hashem. Pick one. As Eliyahu said to the Jewish people when they worshipped both G-d and idols, in Malachim 1, Perek 18, Verse 21: “Until when are you hopping between two ideas? If the Lord is God, go after Him, and if the Baal, go after him.” Either serve Hashem completely, or don’t serve him at all.

* * * *

Just pick and choose which Mitzvot you would like to keep. Some Mitzvot are too hard for you? That is OK. Hashem values every single positive thing that you do. Every Mitzvah counts. So perhaps you have fallen once or twice and haven’t been able to keep everything? Maybe you messed up. Don’t give up completely! Don’t turn your back on everything just because one thing is too hard. Do what you can do. Judaism is not all or nothing. Just because you broke your diet and ate one cookie, doesn’t mean you should finish the box. Pick whatever mitzvot you can do and do those. Even if it is just avoiding gossip or using foul language. Even if all you do is light shabbos candles, even if after that you drive to shul. No act is too small to be appreciated by G-d. Hashem loves you more than anyone else in the world and all He wants is for you to do as much as you can to bring Him into your life. He loves every Mitzvah that you do, even if you don’t keep all of them. So perhaps you connect to some mitzvot, but not to others. Perhaps you’re trying, but you failed. Pick yourself up and choose what is within your ability to achieve. It may not be everything, but it is something. Serve Hashem as much you can.

* * * *

Food for thought: Which approach do you take?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The System

Despite complaints directed against the shidduch system, I recently had an experience that reminded me of its advantages. I was talking to a co-worker who is a non-religious Jew, and she was telling me about the guy she is dating. She explained that although she likes him a lot, she knows he is not the right person for her, and she does not want to marry him. For those wondering why she was dating him at al, it had been clear from other conversations as well that she was just dating him for fun- she liked him, she enjoyed spending time with him etc. When I asked her why she would not marry him despite her feelings for him, she paused and responded that they have different values and went on to elaborate a few areas in which he did not share her outlooks on issues that were important to her.

The conversation reminded me why the process of finding out important information about a potential date before dating is a good system. If you’re dating because you want to find a life partner, it is important to first make sure you are basically on the same page as a person. Because if you don’t do it that way, then you end up meeting someone, developing serious romantic feelings for them, and by the time you realize that he’s headed in one direction and you are headed the opposite way, you end up with a painful break up. I guess, if you’re only looking for fun and not marriage, then why not go out with anyone who you get along with and are attracted to? In the case of my coworker, (or those like her) I think she is started to reach the point where she is done having fun and ready for a serious relationship, but is so used to just dating people she is interested in without checking out the important stuff early on in the process. That’s the problem with dating for marriage outside the shidduch system.

On the other hand, one problem with the shidduch system,(which I also wrote about here) is that at times, too much emphasis is placed on compatibility on the values level and not enough on the “do these two people get along” level. Or not necessarily too much emphasis on values, but rather emphasis on the wrong values, or on small details that people pretend are values. This video which I have recently seen posted in a number of places and has been emailed to me by a number of friends is a humorous demonstration of how extreme it can be. For example, people have suggested guys for me whose parents are divorced, and they made sure to tell me that in advance. Things like that (that is just an example) slightly bother me because they are not make-it or break-it items, as opposed to factors such as religious level/observance or the type of lifestyle that they would like to have. One might argue that a person whose parents are divorced is probably negatively affected by that and/or perhaps have not had a positive model for a healthy romantic relationship.

To that I respond that if that is the case, we should also be asking about whether a person has had any traumatic experiences that might affect their future relationships, such as being abused by a teacher or being bullied as a child or every single negative. Perhaps some people do ask about those things. In which case I wonder: Are all of those whose lives aren’t perfect (by certain standards, anyway), which describes most people because such is life, doomed to never get married? My decision to go on a date with someone is not based on if their parents are divorced, or what their cousins do for a living. Nor is it based on what happened to them on the second day of school in fifth grade or how many times they blinked when they were two weeks old.

Despite the flaws of the shidduch system, namely that people can get carried away in attributing importance to small details, luckily most people I have personally encountered are pretty reasonable, and my conversation with my coworker was a good reminder that the system is at least good in theory. Before you develop feelings and become invested in a relationship that you hope will lead towards marriage, it is good to make sure your basic values are the same. Once you know you’re headed in the same direction, you can meet up and figure out whether you would like to head in that direction together.