Monday, December 22, 2008

"Hanukah" means "dedication"

When people ask me why we light candles for eight days of Hanukah, I usually tell them that we do so to commemorate a tale of a little flask of oil that survived the destruction of the ancient temple and miraculously enabled the people of Israel to relight the temple's holy flame--designed to stay lit continuously. Despite the fact that the small amount of oil was only enough to keep the flame burning for one day, the flame somehow burned instead for eight days. The magically long-lasting oil allowed sufficient time for more oil to be produced, and thus, the temple could be rededicated to God with its "ner tamid" (eternal flame) properly glowing. Now, some rabbis deem this story an invention told, in part, to heighten the concept of the true miracle that arose from that tragic time in Jewish history: the survival of the steadfast Jewish people against all odds.

I thought about those odds tonight, after lighting the first two candles (we add one per day of the 8-day holiday). How slim were the odds that I would be lighting the commemorative candles tonight with the grandkids of Irving (Itzhak) Lipson (Lipszyc), the one surviving member of his own nuclear family, almost entirely wiped out by Nazis? Now that's a miracle! And how slim were the odds that my children, who have grown up in a minority group within a mostly gentile community, would value their traditions enough to want to share them with both Jewish and non-Jewish friends during the eight days of celebrating? Another miracle to celebrate! How slim were the odds that I--whose own original birth family has mostly abandoned, much to my dismay, the traditions that have held our people together for thousands of years, traditions such as the most essential, enriching, and practical tradition of keeping the Sabbath/Shabbat--would find and maintain such a heartfelt connection to the essence of my people, and realize the meaning of dedication as a means of both continuity and evolution? The odds were roughly the same as the odds of me frying dozens of potato pancakes ("latkes") in a mere teaspoon of oil.

Now, despite its proximity to one of the holiest days for Christians, Hanukah is not one of the holiest days for Jews, but rather, a minor holiday. It's lesson, though, is MAJOR. Jews light candles not just to commemorate a miracle and an uplifting tale, but perhaps more so to reaffirm the strength of dedication, from generation to generation, to a way of life defined by a moral code, service to others for the creation of justice and balance for all, and good deeds that honor and appreciate all of God's creations. This way of life has, like the candles, the power to illuminate--but only if fueled by dedication. Without dedication, the candles are nothing but wax and wick, melted into solid drips, to be scraped off a Hanukah menorah the next morning.

Let us all, no matter what our religions, dedicate (or rededicate) ourselves to staying true to the values that enrich each individual soul and promote harmony for all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A poem to inspire you as you choose holiday gifts for children

Building Blocks
By Susan L. Lipson

Children are the atoms;
adults, the cells formed by chemical processes
and mutations of those fundamental atoms.
If we fill atoms with the white Light of Truth,
they will, through their evolution into "adulthood,"
remain bright, warm, and illuminated,
and chemical reactions from others
will cause refractions of that Light,
producing rainbows—
colorful adults showing themselves
through the Oneness of the Creator's Light.
Without the infusion of the Light at the atomic level,
from childhood,
our growth as adults is tantamount to
a slow dimming of the spark that we bring to this planet
when we first arrive.
We must continuously stoke the fires,
our passions for beauty's truth and truth's beauty,
adding art, music, and literature as kindling,
and then fanning the flames with love, inspiration, and respect--
the greatest gifts we can give our children
and our future generations.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lessons from a Morning at a Soup Kitchen

Yesterday I served breakfast/brunch at St. Vincent de Paul's soup kitchen. It wasn't my first time serving, and my shift wasn't even marked by any dramatic events (like the time a father tried choking his baby, or the time a homeless guy started yelling hateful anti-Semitic comments at our Jewish group of volunteers); however, I realized something profound on this relatively peaceful day at the shelter: Very few people choose whom they want to be, while most allow their identify to be formed for them, by their circumstances.

Some of the homeless folks I've served have addressed us volunteers by name (we wear name tags), thanking us for giving our time to help them, even blessing us and asking the name of our organization so they can remember our generosity. Perhaps a few of these non-despondent food recipients will use their amiability and confidence to redefine themselves the way one woman did; I volunteered alongside her a few months ago ("Hey, it's my turn to give back now," she explained). But the majority of the recipients seem despondent, hanging their heads, looking surprised when a volunteer calls them "Sir" or "Miss," and smiling awkwardly at friendly greetings and wishes. The most downtrodden can't even muster a "thank you," because that would define them as a civilized member of society, and they don't feel part of anything, apparently. The capacity to say "thank you," I've noticed, is very indicative of one's self-esteem...and not just at the soup kitchen.

Even among the volunteers, I've met those who are serving NOT as an act of choosing whom they want to be, but rather, as a the fulfillment of an obligation imposed by others. Some people I've met give their time because their kids need "credit" for a school program, and so both parent and child serve to fulfill an obligation. Others volunteer because someone else dragged them along so they wouldn't feel awkward as they satisfied their curiosity about homeless people. And I've met some, among the many Jewish volunteers, who do this because "I really need to do a mitzvah--it's been a while." (A "mitzvah" is a commandment from God that one should fulfill.) In short, despite the fact that goodness is accomplished in any case, regardless of the motives of the do-gooder, the goodness itself does not always define the do-gooder.

When another volunteer asked me why I serve there, I answered, "Because they have so little, and I have so much. It's only fair." It's justice--or as we say in Hebrew, tzedek, a balancing of inequities in an attempt to foster peace. I choose to define myself as a do-gooder for the sake of establishing peace, one minuscule step at a time. Now, you might say, "But actually, your circumstances, as a well-off person, have defined you as a giver. Had you been born on the street, you wouldn't have chosen whom you want to be, as you say, so easily." And you may be right. As a street person, I may not have been the type to harness my circumstances and steer my way to personal happiness and a life of helping others. I may never know (I HOPE I never know!) whether I am that type. Very few struggling people are that tough and optimistic. But I think it's important that I, and those reading this blog, realize that ANYONE could be homeless--it's a state, not an identity. Choosing whom I want to be, even without the luxury of a computer at my fingertips, a full refrigerator in the other room, and a warm house on a rainy day, is not about coping with circumstances; it's about creating new circumstances.

No matter whom we choose to be, though, if goodness results, that's what really matters, isn't it? It's all good, as my kids say. Kol tov! It's all good.