Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 25, 2020

Goodbye 2020

2020 has been compared to many things. 

I’m willing to bet that many of our friends and family with Christmas trees have this ornament hanging on it. The reigning metaphor for 2020 became “Dumpster Fire.” I suppose it is appropriate because dumpsters are like bottomless pits of rotten and broken things, almost thirsty for the next horrible thing to be placed in its container.


There are also those who have crowned 2020 the longest year ever, and not just because February had a day added to it.


Or, if you have been pregnant, you are familiar with this yummy potion on the right – the Glucose Tolerance Test drink - which you have to chug in a matter of minutes, despite the fact that your stomach is full and the drink is disgusting. 2020 felt that way.


And then finally, there’s nothing more 2020 than an Amazon review – this one being particularly accurate.


There is something cathartic about these pop memes. They help us to laugh at the most bizarre and troubling year of most of our lives. We want to laugh at it, if we can, or honestly, we just want to leave it behind. With a vaccine coming, we begin to hope that we can just move on.


Yet as the year comes to an end, I’m beginning to rethink the urge to roll the 2020 dumpster fire into a dark corner of our emotional backyards. It does us no good to leave it full of junk, attracting cobwebs and mold. Because we all know…one day we’ll need to clean out the yard and when we do, we’ll be saddled with unhappy memories and the burden of finding a way to haul away the debris.


Here is where I think we need to become emotional environmentalists. I’ll explain: a few years ago, Woodlands cut our physical dumpster in half as we dedicated ourselves to better recycling and a concerted move to composting. It wasn’t an easy transition, it required lots of processing and planning by the Environmental Task Force and the Board of Trustees, but our temple and our planet was healthier for it in the end.


Indeed, some of 2020’s waste isn’t waste at all – we learned a lot about ourselves and the local, national and global realities we live in. 2020 can’t just be thrown out, instead, it should be composted. There are nutrients in this putrid refuse bin that can actually help us grow into stronger, more compassionate people in an improved world.


CNN Columnist Jane Greenway Carr calls 2020 a “great confessional…the year when Covid-19 cast America's longstanding sins of racial and economic inequality into newly harsh relief.” Her colleague Van Jones has called it a “great awakening…a cultural tsunami that is sweeping through media, the academy, houses of worship, Hollywood and even corporate board rooms. This new, building force may someday change the course of world history. In many ways, it already has.”


As we watched George Floyd take his last, strangled breath, we were finally able to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” 2020 declared it impossible to turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of BIPOC communities in America.


As the country shut down, we saw the rich stay rich and the poor thrust into financial uncertainty. 4 times as many women than men left the labor force in September. We are reminded, again, of how women shoulder the burden of work and home life while being undervalued in both areas. Experts agree that the progress women have made in the workforce over the last 20 years was basically decimated overnight by the pandemic’s exploitation of deep-seeded societal misogyny and inequality. 2020 practically screams at us: See it. Fix it.


All that said, we’ve learned some positive things about ourselves too. In a year when people would have stayed away from the voting booth, fearful for their health, our nation took major steps toward enfranchising voters with record breaking mail-in voting, early voting, and carefully organizing our polling stations to make it safe and possible for all to vote. And even when that democratic process subsequently was attacked, the checks and balances of our constitution stood strong.


Which leads me to the most important caveat of the evening: Many of us look forward to 2021 as a return to normalcy, a way back to our previous lives. Yet that is the most unfortunate thing we could do: revert back, relapse into old habits. A new year does not mean all our ills are cured. Flawed immigration systems, climate change, inequality…we have taken heed of these plagues and more in unprecedented ways, and not a one of them will disappear when Joe Biden takes office or when we’re all vaccinated. Perhaps the soil will once again become conducive to progress, but we cannot forget how toxic it is to start. We must shine the light of our great awakening into it in order to grow a better future.


There is a character in this week’s Torah portion who embodies this charge: Serah bat Asher.
Parshat Vayigash mentions Serah as Asher’s daughter, Jacob’s granddaughter, a contemporary of Joseph and present for the move from Canaan to Egypt. Yet, hundreds of years later in the book of Numbers, as Moses takes a census, Serah, the daughter of Asher, is listed as if she is there. The rabbis wonder how this can be?! Over the course of much midrash, they conclude that this Serah in Numbers is the same Serah who went down to Egypt in the book of Exodus. An Elijah-type figure, she transcends time and space to guide the Israelites in the right direction.


One such story is told when Serah turns up in the Beit Midrash – the study house - of 1st century sage Yochanan ben Zakkai. One of his students asks what it looked like when the Red Sea parted. Yochanan ben Zakkai tells his students that the walls of water looked like walls of sprouting bushes. Suddenly, a voice comes through an open window in the back of the beit midrash: "No. That's not right." All the students turn around and see an old lady peering through the window. "I am Serah bat Asher. I know what the walls looked like because I was there! They looked like mirrors, mirrors in which every person was reflected, so that it looked like the generations that came before and the generations that would come after.”


I find great power in Serah’s words. As the Israelites passed through the narrow straits to freedom, they would have caught a glimpse of themselves and be forced to reckon with what they saw. Who is this person? Who is this nation? Once enslaved to a tyrant; once enslaved to doubt, fear and tedium, could they imagine themselves as something more? Could they have the courage to see their past as a part of them and choose a brighter future for themselves and for their children?


Serach’s insight teaches me that 2021 will not spring up like a budding bush out of untouched soil. Our growth and blossoming will come with an honest reckoning of what and who we are and then finding the courage to trudge forward toward something better.


Because have you noticed how often we mention Egypt in our prayers? We Jews never forget the hard times. We know there is a message in our suffering. Care for the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt. Remember how God brought you out with a mighty hand. Remember these not just for the glory of God, but for the assertion that evoking the lessons of trying times helps us to build stronger, more compassionate societies of the future.


Viktor Frankl said “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 2020 was inflicted upon us. 2021 can be the year we unleash the greatest change yet, not by ignoring this most terrible year, but by learning from it.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hanukkah Chutzpah

I thought we had enough Hanukkah children’s books in our house, but I was wrong. A book showed up this month that did what children’s books do best: look like an innocent tale on the outside but sucker punch you in the gut by the end.


It’s called Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. This story reads like a vintage Hasidic tale, but it
was actually written in 1989 by Eric Kimmel. Its protagonist, Herschel of Ostropol IS a character from traditional Yiddish literature, though. He’s a trickster who has a habit of exposing hypocrisy and inequality. For example, the story is told:

During a holiday feast, Hershel once sat across from a self-absorbed rich man who made derogatory remarks about Hershel’s eating habits.

“What separates you from a pig, is what I’d like to know,” the man said derisively.

“The table,” Hershel replied.


So in Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Herschel shows up to a village on the eve of Hanukkah. The town is dark and cold, not a single candle is lit. The villagers explain that a pack of goblins haunt the old synagogue on the hill. They blow out the villagers’ candles and throw their latkes on the floor. The rabbi adds that the only way to get rid of the goblins is to spend the eight days of Hanukkah in the synagogue, light the menorah each night and avoid the goblins’ mischief. Then, on the 8th night, if you’ve even made it that far, the King of the Goblins himself has to light the menorah.


Herschel isn’t scared. He takes up residence in the haunted synagogue. Night after night, the goblins show up. Each goblin is more grotesque terrifying than the last. Yet, night after night, Herschel outwits the goblins, besting them into lighting the candles.


On the 7th night, though, no goblin comes. Herschel, starting to doze off, suddenly hears a horrible noise, a voice that sounds like the cracking of bones. “Happy Hanukkah, Herschel of Ostropol! It is I…the King of the Goblins.” “Aren’t you early?” Herschel asks. “Oh, I’m not there….yet,” the King of the Goblins replies. “But I’m coming tomorrow to teach you how scary us goblins can be!” The voice rises to a hurricane roar and rips the shingles from the synagogue roof, shattering the windows. The Hanukkah candles reel in the savage blast, but do not go out.


The next night, the King of the Goblins arrives. Herschel, petrified, puts on a brave face, greets him with his trademark snark. As the King of the Goblins demands that Herschel acknowledge how scary and threatening he is, Herschel complains that he can’t see…it’s too dark in the synagogue. Herschel asks the King of the Goblins to light the candles by the entry way so that Herschel can see the goblin’s horrendousness better. The King of the Goblins, in his arrogance, lights the candles one by one until Herschel points out that the candles the King just lit were those of the menorah. The King of the Goblins, horrified, roars in fury. The earth trembles and a mighty wind comes. It rips off the synagogue roof and blows down the walls. The wood scatters like matchsticks. The menorah’s flames spin, but the fire stays strong. As the wind dies down, the night is still. The walls, floor, roof, even the foundation stones of the synagogue have vanished. Yet the menorah remains on a humble table, standing tall and bright in the winter snow. Hershel waits until the last candle burns out and he returns to the village, where the windows are alight with menorahs and Hanukkah joy.      


I felt chills the first time I read the story. I thought to myself: this is more than a fable, more than a fantastical Hanukkah tale. THIS is the story of the Jewish people.


In every age, there are hideous, harassing forces that try to snuff out the light of our people – the goblins of anti-semitism - greed, power and jealousy. As I read of the flying shingles and broken glass, I thought of the pograms, the inquisition, the mischief and the mayhem, the small and large aggressions our ancestors faced ever since they first uttered words of Torah.


As the walls splintered and the roof divided from the old synagogue, I thought of the Holocaust, destroying half of worldwide Jewry. How empires, hordes and mobs have come in every generation to prove to us Jews how powerful and superior they are, hell bent on proving some grotesque, perverted point.


But then I turn my attention to the Hanukkah candles, which persist despite the many attempts to spit them out, or prevent them from being lit altogether. It’s significant that the walls of the synagogue in Herschel’s story disappear completely, revealing the menorah bare but bright.


Isn’t this what it was like for the Maccabees: their house of worship defiled and disgraced? Having fought the war against tyranny, they reclaim their holy space, but it can never actually be the same.


Imagine it what it must have been like: to have won the war but still have the task of rebuilding? Imagine how fatigued they must have been. Yet somehow they found the courage to rebuild and to rededicate their temple, allowing the Jewish story to begin a new chapter.


Friends, I’ll let you in on the true miracle of Hanukkah. It’s not that the oil lasted 8 days for the Maccabees, but that it’s lasted 2,000 years for the rest of us. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the Temple and our synagogues can be burned, ransacked and even destroyed but that the light of Torah and the glowing heart of Jewry still remains.


Come to think of it, there is no better metaphor for Hanukkah 2020: a menorah lit, with no walls around it. While I’m thankful that our beloved Woodlands building is standing and well-cared for, our community tonight gathers around the light of our chanukiyot, we gather in the shared experience of the holiday. No walls, just the light in our hearts coming together.


As the pandemic – a King of the Goblins in its own way - has blown through our homes, our public spaces and our lives, we have found ways to outsmart it, to challenge its hubris. Our medical professionals and researchers are heroic Herschels. Every person who puts on a mask helps keep another life from being snuffed out. We are battered, bruised and broken, but like our Maccabee forebearers, and like the Jews of the ages who followed them, we stand before the Hanukkah lights with a gutsy attitude; a boldness to defiantly defy the odds. You could call it Hanukkah Chutzpah.


This year, we need even more Hanukkah Chutzpah. At a time when we’re feeling trapped in our homes, bound by an invisible goblin who deals in fear and isolation, our community will continue to find one another. This year, every year, on every night of Hanukkah, we Jews light our menorahs together. We increase our light and our joy evening by evening, a physical manifestation of eternal Jewish incandescence…the spirit of our ancestors that calls out in every age: be bold, be kind, be brave.