Yom Sheini, 4 Adar 5778

Roots and Branches of the New Year of the Trees

Perhaps I first heard of Tu BiSh’vat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees – marked on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat – back when I went to religious school in the 1960s and 70s. 

Perhaps…but I certainly didn’t retain the information. 

Fast forward to college in the early 80s. I was majoring in environmental studies and simultaneously rediscovering my Jewish heritage. Being outdoors and celebrating the natural world was an important part of my spirituality, so I sought out any hints that other Jews felt the same way.

Imagine my thrill and surprise when I first read about the mystical “Tu BiSh’vat seder,” a ritual dating back at least to the early 1700s. Marked by a celebratory meal with four cups of wine and three categories of fruit, it was both a sensual pleasure and deeply moving to sample a wide variety of exotic fruits and, as we ate, to contemplate our connections to both the physical world and to various mystical realms. What a fabulous way, I thought, to honor Tu BiSh’vat, trees, and – at least I hoped – all things environmental. 

Well, not quite.

To the mystics who devised the first Tu BiSh’vat seders, trees were mostly a metaphor for the flow of divine energy and presence. As much as we may wish it, for them, Tu BiSh'vat was not some sort of proto-Earth Day.

Regardless, these rituals were a creative, inspiring strand in a complex web of Jewish traditions, including many that demonstrate a profound understanding of the best way to relate to and sustain the natural world that surrounds us.

For example, the Tu BiSh’vat seder was a creative reimagining of the earliest hints we have of Tu BiSh’vat itself – a very brief mention in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) about a “new year” for the trees. The date for that new year was apparently in dispute, and in response, Rav Hai Gaon, one of the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community in the 10th and 11th centuries C.E, writes “at [the] time the sap begins to flow upwards and the trees begin to drink and come alive” (Answers of the Gaonim,1:4 page 119). 

This idea – that seemingly dormant trees are quite awake, alive, and getting ready for spring – was well known to me from my high school days of tapping maple trees and boiling down their sap to make maple syrup. How fabulous that this piece of nature lore was well known to the leading rabbi of 1000 years ago! And how wonderful, too, that it inspired other rabbis, 700 years later. These mystics leapt from the physical to the metaphorical, to a contemplation of the very flow of life itself, the possibility of us becoming connected to the divine flow that, whether we acknowledge it or not, surrounds us all the time, even in our spiritual “winters.”

As I learned more about Tu BiSh’vat, I realized that many generations of Jews have taken the metaphorical leap of the mystics as the starting point for their own journeys, connecting to the earth, our traditions, and the divine flow. These journeys range from the intense connection to the land found in the Zionist writings of A.D. Gordon, to a growing number of Jews who, like me, make connections between their faith and traditions on the one hand, and solving modern environmental crises on the other. Whenever we see a mountain and pause to say a b’rachah, a blessing, when teens at camp learn about sustainable gardening, when synagogues cut their energy usage or buy “green” electricity, we are all taking the next steps on that journey.

The Reform community, led by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), has played a huge role, not only in teaching about that connection, but also in moving us from study to action on behalf of the poor and the planet. In fact, I served as the RAC’s congregational relations director back in 1993, when we helped launch the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Now, some 25 years later, I am back at COEJL as its new executive director.

COEJL and the RAC want to work with Jews and Jewish communities to learn about Jewish environmental teachings and put them into practice. As we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat this year, may we all join in the most literal sense of tikkun olam, healing our world, by acting to protect the many wonders of Creation.

You can do this by:

Learn more about the Reform Jewish community's environmental work by visiting www.rac.org/enviro


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

What Tu BiSh’vat and Sam the Pickle Man Have in Common

In Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 cinematic gem, “Crossing Delancey,” the actor Peter Riegert portrays Sam, the humble mensch and pickle man who woos Amy Irving’s snobbish but sympathetic character, Izzy. So excited about the promise of a long-awaited date with her, Sam confesses, he uttered the Hebrew blessing for planting trees. This line has always melted my heart, although, in fact, there is no such blessing.

Because blessings release divine gifts into the human realm, the ancient rabbis did compose a blessing to mark the exact moment we appreciate trees in bloom for the first time each spring: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam sheh-lo chee-sahr b’olamo kloom u’vara vo beriyot tovot v’ilanot tovot l’hanot bahem b’nai adam. (Blessed are You, Eternal Sovereign of the Universe, Who has made a world which lacks nothing, and Who has fashioned wondrous creations and fruit trees of goodness for humans to enjoy.)

In Israel, that moment of appreciation is now, but here in the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, the new year of the trees, during a bleak, cold season. Bereft of blossoms or leaves, the trees, poking out of the dull, ice-covered earth, appear asleep if not dead. Despite their appearance, though, sap is rising in these much-alive trees, true miracles of nature.

Scratch the surface a bit, and you’ll find that even though both Sam and Tu BiSh’vat are somewhat mundane and predictable, they also are filled with wisdom, poetry, hope, and faith.

Tu BiSh’vat, originally one of four different new years on the Jewish calendar, was a fiscal marker or an accounting construct to separate earnings from one year to the next on fruit grown on trees. Later, when Jews ceased to be farmers in their homeland, the festival took on new, symbolic features and meanings.

Poetry surrounded the metaphor of the Tree of Life, and mystical connections grew around the custom of eating distinct types of fruit on Tu BiSh’vat: higher levels of holiness for more exposed fruits such as grapes, and lower levels of spirituality for nuts with tough, inedible shells. The festival also became associated with the seven species of fruits and grains grown in the Land of Israel and mentioned in the Torah – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates – and Zionists celebrated the value of working the soil of the Jewish homeland to grow them.

Likewise, in “Crossing Delancey,” Sam works diligently to transform the lowly cucumber into a crunchy, spicy treat, repeatedly dipping his hands into brine-filled bins and later soaking them in vanilla to remove the scent of garlic and vinegar. Complementing his work ethic is his devotion to his family, his respect for his Jewish heritage, and his unending faith that love will bloom.

Like Sam, Tu BiSh’vat, originally a modest and practical day on the Jewish calendar, also teaches us important lessons. In the depth of winter, the holiday reminds us to appreciate the natural world that sustains us and helps us value our connection to the land of Israel. Although it is too early in North America to recite the blessing over blossoms, on Tu BiSh’vat, as we mark a day for planting seeds for future blessings, we can say appropriate blessings as we sample various nuts and fruits that are gifts from the trees.   

This year on Tu BiSh’vat, as you enjoy fruits and nuts (and maybe even a pickle or two), listen for the echo of the voice of Isaiah the Prophet as he rejoices and celebrates the trees: “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

This Tu BiSh'vat, May We Begin with the Trees

Science can now confirm that hugging trees is good for you. 

If the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy. You don’t have to hug them to derive benefits. Just being in their vicinity can positively affect your health. 

In a recently published book called Blinded by Scienceauthor Matthew Silverstone explains that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many health issues, including concentration, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness – even headaches! 

Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: Everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect our biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, the tree’s rate of vibration – which differs from your own – can affect you in positive ways. 

It’s pretty fascinating. What’s even more fascinating, though, is that science is only recently understanding what religions have known for thousands of years.

In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols we have. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth, as well as Torah, human beings, and God’s Divine structure. 

But it is now clear that trees are more than just symbols of power. Trees have power – transformative power. 

Even the first humans sensed this. Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge long before anyone could scientifically explain why.

“Once upon a time,” writes Rabbi Daniel Swartz  in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. [Yet] we understood that world better [for] we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.” Rabbi Swarz reminds us that the Bible is a story about people with intimate knowledge of the land, knowledge that is reflected in the language and poetry of our prophets, psalmists, and wisdom literature.

When Isaiah compared Israel to a terebinth oak in the fall, his audience could immediately appreciate the double-edged nature of his metaphor, for while the terebinth is at its most glorious just before all its leaves drop away, it is also one of the hardiest of trees and can even re-sprout from a stump. To our modern ears, though, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar with the characteristics of the terebinth. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us really take the time to learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the 18th century, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees. He wrote this now-famous prayer: 

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees (and) enter into prayer…may all the foliage of the field –  all grasses, trees, and plants …send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things…

Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of trees. They transformed him and his ability to pray and connect with God. They transformed the prayers themselves. 

We know now that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. He experienced mood swings and bouts of paranoia – but under the trees, it seems, he felt better. 

How many of our daily aches and pains, how many of our daily sorrows and woes, how much of our unhappiness, could be alleviated by spending a little more time around trees?

Rabbi Swartz writes, “We have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…” 

But our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to engage with nature, to care for trees and to learn from them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything except for fruit trees, and even if the Messiah himself arrives, should we be in the middle of planting a tree, we must finish planting before going to greet him. 

That’s how important trees are! Adam and Eve knew it. Our psalmists and sages knew it. Rabbi Nachman most certainly knew it. Children know it. Maybe you knew it, too, once?
Rabbi Swarz questions whether “we can move from our discord with nature to an informed harmony with this, God’s universe.”

If we can, it begins with hugging trees.

May each of us, at this Tu BiSh’vat – the New Year of the Trees – refuse to be complacent in accepting the ills and sorrows of our lives. May we seek out ancient and modern cures alike – and may we begin with the trees. 


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

What College Has Taught Me About the Power of Shabbat

Growing up, my family usually didn’t celebrate Shabbat at home. We would go to our local synagogue some Friday nights, but other than that, we treated Shabbat as just another day. At sleepaway camp, however, the experience was much different.

Shabbat at my Reform Jewish camp is a wonderful experience. On erev Shabbat (Friday night), everyone gets dressed up in white and at dinner, we can sit anywhere in the dining hall. After dinner, there is a beautiful service followed by an energetic and spirit-filled song session. On Saturday morning, we get to sleep in, and then rest after the morning service. I have always had a deep connection to camp and I love Shabbat there, but I was never able to find a connection to Shabbat beyond camp.

Then I went away to college.  

The Jewish community at Rutgers University is thriving. With more than 6,000 Jewish students, a beautiful new Hillel building, and a warm and welcoming community, it was easy to find a Jewish home.

Every Friday night during the semester, Rutgers Hillel hosts student-run Shabbat services and a dinner that is free for all Rutgers students. Services for three different communities – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – are held upstairs, where each group prays in its own space, next to the rooms where the other services are going on.

Following services, a catered dinner is held downstairs for 300 to 400 students. They include Jews of different identities, as well as students of other faiths or no faiths who love experiencing dinner with the community. A lot of students continue celebrating Shabbat at the Chabad House down the street after dinner at Hillel.     

When I first started a Rutgers, an extremely large university with more than 36,000 undergraduates on the New Brunswick, NJ, campus, I didn’t celebrate Shabbat at all. Then my cousin convinced me to come to dinner one Friday night. Saying yes was the best decision I could have made, and since then I never miss celebrating erev Shabbat. In fact, as one of the Reform community co-chairs for Hillel, I help lead services for the Reform community each week.

There is something wonderful about celebrating Shabbat each week with hundreds of other Jewish students. Relaxing after a stressful week and praying with members of the community give me a much-needed spiritual renewal, and enjoying Shabbat dinner afterwards reminds me I am part of a diverse and vibrant community.

What I find even more gratifying is being exposed to people with Jewish identities different from my own. Before I went to college, I knew very few, if any, Conservative Jews, and no Orthodox Jews. Now, I confidently call many non-Reform Jews close friends, and have learned about the diverse ways my friends observe Judaism and celebrate Shabbat, all of which has strengthened my own connection to Judaism.

Shabbat at college has – and will continue to be – an essential part of my Rutgers experience. No matter how hard my week is, no matter how much I miss my friends (even if they are only on the other side of campus), I can count on Shabbat as a time to take a break and see familiar faces that brighten my week. Most of all, I have learned that Shabbat is an incredibly powerful experience that, no matter one’s Jewish identity or affiliation, can bring strength to a diverse community.


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

Trees and Hope: A Tu BiSh’vat Reflection

There is hope for a tree;
If it is cut down it will renew itself;
Its shoots will not cease.
-- Job 14:7-9

The wind and the smell of smoke woke us. We stumbled out of bed and joined our neighbors in the cul-de-sac to stare at the raw, red glow lighting up the hills behind our houses. Forty miles per hour gusts of wind fanned the flames, like billows blowing into a cosmic furnace.

We grabbed family photos, medications, important papers, and, inexplicably, gym clothes. Emmy, our German Shepherd mix, knew something was up and never left our side. We made it out; the fire stopped about a mile short of our neighborhood.

Others were not so lucky. The ravaging beast we saw approaching, the Tubbs Fire, proved the most destructive wildfire in California history, part of a barrage of four fires in our area last October. The Tubbs Fire alone killed 22 people, including a past president of our congregation, Marnie Schwartz, z”l. Homes, businesses, schools – 5,643 structures – were destroyed, along with almost 40,000 acres of parkland, forest, and wilderness.

We first evacuated to the synagogue, opening it up to anyone else fleeing the flames. Having served as Congregation Shomrei Torah’s rabbi since 1996, I have loved Santa Rosa and the natural beauty of “the wine country” from the start. My wife, Laura, and I bought a home, raised our kids, and helped grow the congregation, which built its first synagogue just over a decade ago. From there, we watched in shock as the fire gobbled up more and more of the city. In the morning, all we could see were clouds of black smoke.

At first, I was in shock, immobilized, unable to do more than manage what was right in front of me. As time passed, shock morphed into mourning for those lost to the flames, for the 32 families in our community that lost their homes, for our pre-fire sense of safety, and for the landscape – parks, fields, hills, mountains, trees – that makes Sonoma County such a beautiful place to live.

For 22 years, barely a week has gone by when I haven’t spent time in the wilderness around my house. An avid birder and animal tracker, I have developed an intimate relationship with the flora and fauna around me. Now, where once there was green, the ridgeline is black and brown. Lower down, the underbrush is gone, but the trees, for the most part, though singed, are still there. I mourn the devastation I can see, and worry about the red-shouldered hawk that hunts in the grassy meadow near my house, and the colonies of acorn woodpeckers that constantly battled over their acorn granaries. They too have lost their homes.

The Kabbalists of 16th-century Safed in Israel imagined the s’firot, the emanations of Divinity that animate our reality, as a cosmic tree with its roots in the heavens and its branches on earth. Trees play an essential role in Jewish life, beginning with the description of the Torah as Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life.

Tu BiSh’vat (the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat), our New Year of the Trees, begins this January 30th at sundown. The holiday dates back at least 2,000 years, to when the upkeep and support for the Second Temple in Jerusalem depended on tithing; its name reminds us of the date that the tithing of the first fruits of the trees was calculated. In Hebrew, the number 15 is represented by the letter yud for 10 and the letter hey for 5. But yud and hey together spell one of God’s names, Yah, which we are not supposed to speak except in prayer. In other words, the name of God is hidden in Tu BiSh’vat.

It has been difficult to see God in the fire. So much was lost. But the devastation left behind does not tell the whole story. Here in California, wildfires are a familiar part of the natural cycle of life, death, and renewal; while some life is destroyed, new life emerges. The rains finally arrived as the fires ended, and soon after, little green shoots began to appear from the scorched earth. Even my friend’s olive orchard, burned badly by the same fire that took his home, is showing new growth. Those trees that don’t revive will fold back into the earth and nourish the soil around them.

They say it will be a decade before we fully recover from the fire. Hope is sometimes hard to find, and we need patience. Yet, amongst the trees, even those badly damaged by the flames, new life and the hope they embody are beginning to emerge. Life is returning.

Baruch atah, Adonai, m’chayeih hameitim. Blessed is the Ground of All Being, who revives the dead.


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

In Search of the Perfect Donut: My Hanukkah Tradition in Jerusalem

The Jewish holidays always fall “early” or “late” – never “on time.” That, of course, is because as Jews we follow both the Hebrew calendar with its special holidays and the Gregorian calendar with its own special days. In some years, therefore, Hanukkah arrives early – around Thanksgiving (remember Thanksgivukkah a few years back)?  And other years, Hanukkah arrives late – coinciding with Christmas or even extends into the secular New Year. This year, Hanukkah arrives “on time,” with the first candle on the hanukkiyah (nine-branched candleholder used during Hanukkah) lit on the evening of December 12th.

Here in Jerusalem, Hanukkah has fallen victim to little of the commercialization I’ve seen in the United States: no Hanukkah sales, no advertisements extolling the benefits of extravagant gift-giving. Rather, the emphasis is on food – and the food that appears all over is the famous Israeli jelly donut: the sufganiya (sufganiyot is the plural). These fried dough balls rolled in sugar and stuffed with any assortment or combination of jelly and custard start to appear in bakeries, supermarkets, and specialty shops about a month before Hanukkah. Their early entrance serves as a gastronomic warning: Prepare your stomach! Guard your gut! Their colorful icing and gaudy sprinkles serve as a gastronomic siren call: Buy me! Eat me! Savor me!

But here’s the truth about most of the sufganiyot here in Israel: many of them are attractive and beautifully decorated – but they don’t taste great. As an American oleh (a transplant from the U.S. to Jerusalem), I really miss American style donuts. I miss those fluffy, pillowy donuts, overflowing with strawberry jam, raspberry jelly, flavorful custards, and more. 

Each year, as Hanukkah approaches, I do a donut tasting, wandering from bakery to bakery, searching for donut bliss: those fluffy, sweet donuts of my youth. My donut tasting has now become a tradition and since I’m the known maven of donuts, friends and acquaintances regularly inquire where are this year’s best donuts. Two places in Jerusalem get my attention: Roladin, a large bakery with branches in many cities in Israel, gets awards for creativity for its donuts filled with jelly, jam, chocolate, and one of my favorites: pistachio cream. Some sufganiyot even come with syringes to inject more filling into the donut’s cavity. But the prize for best sufganiyot, year after year, goes to Kadosh, a bakery and café in downtown Jerusalem. These are donuts worth traveling for: the dough is sweet and light with a hint of orange and vanilla and the fillings cascade out of the donut. Hands down, the crème caramel is the best.

The Festival of Lights might last only eight nights – but the festival of donuts goes on for a month or more. And just when those last sufganiyot disappear – that’s right – the hamantaschen make their entrance. Wishing you a happy Hanukkah and plenty of sufganiyot overflowing with delectable fillings.


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law

Sometimes we create our own traditions, sometimes we carry on a tradition we inherit, and sometimes a tradition can come from unexpected places.

Ours began with a cut-crystal dreidel. My mother-in-law, Sue, gave it to me the first time I went home with my then-boyfriend for their family Christmas. My Jewish upbringing didn’t include holiday decor of any sort, beyond lighting the Menorah or weekly Shabbat candles. Our traditions comprised mainly of food, presents, food, family, observance, and food. Mmmmmmm fooooooood. I received the crystal driedel in the spirit intended; a loving and thoughtful gesture, as well as a recognition of my heritage.

I had no idea in 1996 that what Sue actually handed me was a family tradition, especially because in 1996, I did not yet know we would become family. I suspect Sue had an inkling.

Despite our best intentions, not all of our traditions take hold. On Tuesday night – the first night of Hanukkah – we unwrapped each driedel. Our display numbers 19 and counting, one for each year of our union. As we marveled over the artistry of each one, I told my 11-year-old that someday, when he and his brother live in their own spaces, they could divide up the collection. Of course, he began staking his claim immediately, arguing about who would get first pick.

I don’t tend to brag about my children’s developmental milestones, but this one seems advanced in arguing with siblings over heirlooms. May it serve him well.

My favorite part about our dreidel collection is that it comes from the Christian side of our family, and that Sue (aka “Grandma”) takes time every year looking in galleries and museum shops to find yet another unique Hanukkah gem to add to our collection.

From the inside of a culture, it’s easy to take it for granted. Sue has not only given us a new tradition, but has helped us elevate the Hanukkah spirit in our home.

This year, Grandma gave each boy a dreidel fidget-spinner.

Thank you, Grandma.

Happy holidays, everyone!


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

Lamps Within: A Meditation for Hanukkah

This meditation for Hanukkah focuses on bringing the light we carry inside ourselves into the world and lighting the lamps of awe and wonder in our children. My friend Rabbi Karol wrote this beautiful melody for this prayer.

Lamps Within

A lamp glows inside your heart,
With eight ways to light it,
Eight ways to keep it shining,
Eight ways to keep its glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with this song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with this prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

Bring the lamp of your soul out into the street
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles around us
Will remember the beauty within,
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles of old
Will remember to rejoice.

A lamp glows inside your children.
Keep it shining.
Watch it glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

Got a Light?


This light’s for Hanukkah…
for a people who who choose to begin
our best of days with light.
What special Jewish day
doesn’t start with on open flame?


This light’s for the Dreidel…
for the great miracle that
happened there, unless
you happen to be there
where it’s changed to here
because we’re inclusive like that.


This light’s for latkes…
Potato pancakes
because everything good
begins and ends
with potatoes.


This light’s for Sufganiyot…
Jelly Donuts. Not quite as popular
as latkes in all the official surveys
but, really, who can complain
when a donut comes along?


This light’s for oil…
Be careful it’s flammable!
Bad for you in every way!
But fry anything in it and the
memory of that miracle
flies back into our hearts.


This light’s for Maccabees…
Judah and his whole crew.
When the not really elected leaders
started to poo-poo everything
they risked life and limb
for all these lights. Stand up
like a Judah, my friends.


This light’s for the shamash
Doesn’t take a night off.
Does the essential work that
lets the other eight shine.
Be the shamash you wish
to see in the world.


This light’s for miracles…
It doesn’t matter if a great miracle
happened here or there
just that you believe that one
could happen at all.
How many miracles are you missing?

Got a light?

In the above video, Lupert performs his poem set to music with Josh Goldberg, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and cantorial soloist in Los Angeles, CA. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Josh graduated from University of Southern California’s renowned Thornton School of Music, in the Popular Music program. He has toured internationally with artists such as Craig Taubman and Rick Recht, and has performed at major Jewish conferences. In 2017, Josh created his own record label and production company, Kosher Style Records, specializing in producing albums for up-and-coming contemporary Jewish songwriters from around the country. He is currently the cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Hillel in Los Angeles, and is studying to be a cantor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA. Josh lives in Sherman Oaks with his fiancée, Annie, their cat, Jazz, and their dog, Frankie.


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

A Song of Light and Fire: Hillel and Shammai, Hanukkah, and Us

As we returned the sifrei Torah, the Torah scrolls, to their places after the honor of carrying them through the assembled congregation of 6,000 Reform Jews this past Shabbat morning, one of the other participants gave voice to something that I had already been feeling: “Now that’s an honor I never want to earn again,” she said.

I was astonishingly touched to be asked. The Torah bearers at the Shabbat morning service of the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention were from the Virgin Islands, Houston, and Northern California. We were chosen so we could feel the symbolic support of a vast movement, the care and concern of a continent of congregations. It lifted us up, and was a uniquely amazing experience.

I am glad to have participated, and worried that I did not follow the assigned route through the vast hallway, but sometimes you just have to go your own way.

But my partner Torah bearer was on to something. I felt famous... for being rained on? More to the point: if it took a trauma to earn that honor, indeed, I don’t want another one like that.

Now it’s Hanukkah. In the aftermath of trauma, and witness to new trials in other places as flames return once again to California, I have a new understanding of both sides of a very old argument.    

The Talmud is, perhaps, unique amongst the sacred scriptures of the world, sometimes more focused on the discussion than the decision, and, even when it eventually concludes, it usually preserves a record of the “losing” argument. In fact, in the search for truth, better to call it a “minority opinion” than a “losing” side. To us, after the fact, it seems like all sides were partners in a search for understanding.

Usually, I teach about the development of Hanukkah, the question of history and authenticity, the fact that the central story we share of the little jar of oil lasting for eight days does not appear until hundreds of years after the events themselves – artful myth-making using strands of truth from the past to solve a new problem. But that is a topic I have addressed many times before.

This year, another part of the interpretive history of this holiday speaks to me: the heated argument between the disciples of Hillel and the followers of Shammai over how to light the  Hanukkah menorah.

Many of us know that almost always our tradition decided that Jewish practice follows the teaching of the house of Hillel. Although that’s still true in this case, I think the followers of Shammai made their best case ever.

Here is the issue: what we are (supposedly) remembering is the story of a supply of oil that started out fully lit and then, although it lasted much longer than expected, dwindled down over time. Reproducing that, then, wouldn’t you light all eight candles the first night, then seven, then six...? That’s a logical move for an act meant as a ritual reflection of an actual event.

That is the position of Beit Shammai, the followers of Shammai. Makes sense to me.

Hillel or his followers, however, had a creative response that I think was more in touch with the psychology and symbolism, and a reflection of the season, and the Festival of Lights. The candles, the house of Hillel said, are reflections not of the event, but of the miracle. Not the light, but the wonder and the awe about it. And besides, they say: we add to holiness, we do not take away from it.

I live in the Virgin Islands. But I am also watching the flames in California now. I know how to light a menorah, under normal circumstances. And this Hanukkah, I am glad our tradition preserved both opinions.

As we are still, a hundred days after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, without power on parts of our islands, but, slowly, watching it spread... as we long for light... it would be intolerable, it would be trauma all over again... to start out with a fully lit menorah, and then watch it dwindle. This year, for me, the concept of the spreading, the sharing, the growth of light speaks to me as never before.

So that interpretation – the idea of growing light that is so deeply embedded within us – speaks to me where I live.

But you know, these lights we light? They are, actually... flame.

We preserve minority opinions, partly, perhaps, because there may come a day when they will be needed. And sometimes, we just have to go our own way.

To my friends and colleagues in Santa Rosa and Los Angeles, I wonder if, for you, this year, Shammai might hit closer to home.

Think about the idea that every night, the flames diminish, the fire is less.

Just one year, maybe, but if I were in California, I might want to go all rogue on my menorah this year. I think for those in the midst of smoke and flame, Shammai’s practice of making the fire fade a little more each night... if I were there, this year, that might be a source of comfort for me.

We all carry the Torah, we all bear the tradition forward, dependent on and surrounded by the love and support of a caring community. We are given directions, but, ultimately, it is up to us to pick our path, and choose the direction we wish to go.

May it be a meaningful celebration for us all – filled with power and light, free from destruction and chaos. Happy Hanukkah!

Recovery continues in communities affected by the season’s hurricanes, including Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The best ways to help those in need in these regions is to donate to these organization providing relief in impacted areas: Jewish Federations of North America 2017 Hurricane Relief Fund and NECHAMA: A Jewish Response to Disaster.


ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life

joomla visitor