Creating a Progressive, Inclusive, Egalitarian Jewish People: My Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Presidential Address

On March 28, 2017, I was honored to be elected President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association at our biennial convention in Portland, OR. These are the remarks I delivered that evening at our Presidential Dinner.

Thank you. I will admit that when I agreed to accept this position, I only did so because I thought I would be able to score an invitation to President Hillary Clinton’s White House Hanukkah party.

I’m honored to be here standing in front of you tonight, and so I would like to offer a few acknowledgements, and then some remarks.

First to Yohanna, thank you for that beautiful and moving introduction and for being such a partner and support to me in life, in love and in this endeavor we are on together. I fully recommend to all of you to have a rabbi as a partner.

My kids, Ozi and Erez, who are here. Those who were with us at RRC remember Ozi as a little baby, not as a high school sophomore, now embarrassed I’m sure. He was born while we were students at RRC. To him and Erez who joined us later, I owe my gratitude for letting me do what I do, for I know it is not easy, and their lives are not normal. They get dragged around places, left alone a lot, and it is hard to find time for all four of us to have time together.

Thank you to my parents, Alan and Karen Goldstein, who are here today, who have been very supportive of me throughout these years and travel across the country every year on Rosh Hashanah to attend my congregation, though part of me believes they are still hoping that I will announce from the bimah that I am leaving the rabbinate to go to law school.

There are my classmates and colleagues, and specifically those colleagues I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with over these past six years I have served this association, first as co-chair of the Ishut Task Force, then as a board member, from whom I have learned so much. But really to all of you, those in this room and those who were not able to join us, for I know that each one of you has something to teach me, and I look forward to serving you.

To Nina [Mandel], my predecessor, my friend and classmate, who brought us to a place of strength and healing as an association, dealing with such difficult issues with grace and wisdom. For that I am personally grateful and look forward to continuing your work.

I want to recognize Elyse [Wechterman] who has done tremendous things with this association, and I was fortunate to be in leadership when she was brought on. An Executive Director of vision, insight and tremendous energy, who has already moved this association in positive ways that will only benefit our membership and the Jewish people. I very much look forward to working with her.

And I would be remiss if I did not personally acknowledge Richard Hirsh, who is not here tonight, to whom I owe much of my rabbinate. Who served as a personal and intellectual mentor while I was a student, who published my work in the Reconstructionist, who is the one who invited me to serve as co-chair of the Ishut Task Force. When I was first asked to be on the Board, I accepted in large part for the opportunity to work with Richard. I admire his commitment to act on principle and count him as one who will always be my teacher.

This is hard, talking in front of colleagues, and as my remarks are coming now toward the end of this convention, during which we have wrestled with so many issues, perhaps some of these thoughts will be like Deuteronomy, a retelling.

So here we are, and I accept this presidency with all the honor and trepidation that it entails. A bit of trepidation because of the times we live in. For we are living in challenging times, this year specifically. We are living in a time in which Jewish life is in flux, traditional institutions are being challenged, the Jewish community is organizing—or de-organizing, or re-organizing—differently.

We are living in a time in which tensions of anti-Semitism have been brought to the surface, license has been given to those who espouse hate and exploit difference, and a government is in place that trends towards oligarchy and neglects the obligation to protect the most vulnerable. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 War, which began an occupation that today I believe is one of our great moral challenges as a Jewish people.

Indeed, challenging times. And I am sure that all of us are asking the question of where we belong, what our response is, how do we orient ourselves in this new reality. And as individuals, so to as an association. And I think that we, as the RRA, and Reconstructionism as it has since the beginning, continues to offer an answer to the times in which we live.

The RRA itself has been in some transition. We are the rabbinical association associated with the Reconstructionist movement, working alongside the other institutions of the movement to advance common goals and interests. And we will continue to navigate and negotiate what that relationship looks like as the College—now with the congregational arm under the same roof—under Deborah [Waxman]’s wise leadership sets its direction and makes its decisions, and we as an association make ours.

Ultimately, we are an association of Reconstructionist Rabbis. An association of Rabbis who share a common outlook and purpose, orientation and vision. An association whose membership comes from across the Jewish landscape, who find common cause with the aims and goals of the association, who find value in the ethical integrity of our professional standards, who find an intellectual and spiritual home here.

So what is it that we have to offer as Reconstructionist rabbis?

For me it keeps coming back to the theme of this convention, that of Jewish peoplehood. And I know we have been wrestling with what this means. For me, when I think of serving the Jewish people, it means that we as Reconstructionist rabbis embrace: an unapologetic progressivism, total inclusivity and a radical egalitarianism.

With a commitment to the Jewish people, we can state that we are committed to progressive values—actively evolving and not just waiting for outside forces to necessitate an adaptation. That we are committed to a level of equality and justice that necessitates taking a progressive political stance in the face of political forces that would preach difference and otherness. That we fully embrace and emphasize as core to our identity an active engagement in social justice efforts and cultivating interfaith relationships. And we unapologetically committed to a progressive theology that recognizes the fundamental human need for spiritual inquiry, flourishing and transformation, and being able to cultivate the forms and language necessary to meet people where they are.

With a commitment to the Jewish people, we must embrace inclusivity in all its forms, and recognize the dynamic nature of the Jewish people, celebrating diversity in race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and lineality. In the communities we serve we must approach from a place of non-judgment those who seek to participate in our congregations or be counted among the Jewish people, regardless of their background or personal Jewish history. And we embrace those with multiple identities.

And with a commitment to the Jewish people, we embrace a radical egalitarianism that must transcend basic notions of betzelem Elohim and equal participation, to what I believe to be a fundamental and necessary reorientation and realignment of the American Jewish community, to advocate for the guarantee, through means and not just words, that each and every member of the Jewish people has the same access, the same opportunities, the same learning as everyone else.

And if you will allow me to get on my most recent personal soapbox, and address an issue I have been thinking a lot about lately. Because as it stands now, we, as an American Jewish community, do not guarantee the same access to resources for all Jews. While we are quick to point out the wealth gap within our larger society, we are less willing to point it out when it comes to our own community. And I do not mean this about among Jews, but among Jewish institutions.

I’m going to mention synagogues because that is the world I know, knowing that most of our members don’t serve congregations, so while the specific example may not resonate, maybe the idea will. We, within the organized Jewish community, have fully embraced market capitalism. Synagogues are independent entities whose primary sources of funding are our members, and therefore those congregations with members able to give more will have more and those less, less. We are in competition, we measure success by size and growth, and we seek upward mobility. We strive for more dollars because the synagogues with more resources will thus have more to offer and the members of those congregations will thus have more and better Jewish knowledge and experiences than those that do not. The synagogue income gap leads to the Jewish knowledge and experience gap.

In addition, synagogues outside the geographic centers of institutionalized Jewry have less access to resources, and to access those resources—speakers, classes, musicians, etc.—to them requires additional expenditures. And size doesn’t matter, for two 150 member congregation can be comprised of two different population bases with different giving abilities.

The Jewish community loves to fund innovation. But what we fail to realize is that innovation is a relative term—one congregation’s normal is another congregation’s innovation. The true innovation I suggest is not to fund some fancy new project, but to fundamentally think about how we organize and fund the American Jewish community through a system of redistributing wealth so that we are sure that we are raising up all Jews. This to me is radical egalitarianism.

A progressive, inclusive, egalitarian Jewish people. That is what Reconstructionism means to me. What the RRA can continue to create. This is what brings me to this point of service to the association.

And while we as an association of rabbis have this tremendous role to shape the Jewish future, we as an association must also care for those who are doing that shaping. For the success of the RRA will depend on how best we can care for our members, both personally and professionally.

This is the thirteenth year of my rabbinate, all served in the same congregation. I am a bar mitzvah rabbi. And the analogy is apt, because it is after this time that I feel I have grown into a level of maturity and understanding. In my rabbinate now I have officiated at the bar and bat mitzvahs of children I brought into the covenant, married young adults whose bat mitzvah I officiated, and I have buried people I have come to know and love.

My time in the rabbinate has been one of tremendous personal growth, and as I look back, I realize the reasons that brought me into the rabbinate are different than the ones that sustain me now. Ironically, it was only in the rabbinate that I became committed to social justice and the power, the promise and the potential to societal change, to raise up moral voice to issues of common concern.

And ironically, it was only in the rabbinate that I became a spiritual seeker, embracing the kavannah and not just the keva, embracing the traditional matbeah, the forms, the rituals and at the same time rejecting them outright as hindrances and obstacles. My seeking has allowed me to open myself up to wisdom, truth and inspiration from all places, whatever the source.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Throughout these 13 years I have been held by my community, felt the warm embrace of their love and support and also struggled with the profound loneliness that comes from being one of, yet other than.

I’ve learned that as rabbis we must know what we don’t know, and at the same time desire new growth and opportunity. The combination, as Parker Palmer puts it, of “humility and chutzpah.” We need to take care of our physical and emotional selves, and we recognize that some days what we do is a calling, and some days it is just a job. We as an association form this web of mutual support to ensure the continued growth and development of us as rabbis, to advocate for the continued professionalism of the rabbinate, to raise up our voices as the intellectual inheritors of our Reconstructionist ancestors, and to nurture our individual selves.

These have been interesting years of transition and challenge for our association. Aside from leadership change we have faced tensions within our association specifically around the issues of intermarriage among rabbis and what positions we should embrace regarding Israel. These are potent conversations that we are continuing to have. But we can not do so without recognizing that at the heart of both of those conversations is the same feeling: a deep anxiety about the Jewish future because of our love and commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. And while it has pushed against the boundaries of our association and created tension among our membership, underneath it all we must remember that we all share the same hopes and fears for our collective whole, and the same desires and needs as individual selves.

I will end with a bit of Torah.

In my shul we have a monthly Talmud study group, and we are studying Berachot, essentially reading through the entire masechet, and we just came to that famous story in which Rabban Gamliel was deposed as head of the academy for bad behavior. After he was deposed, the text describes, the guard at the door was removed, anyone who wanted to enter was allowed to enter, hundreds of benches were added, and tremendous advances in learning and halakhah were made.

This story in and of itself is worth remembering because of its echoes of progressivism, inclusivity and egalitarianism. But just prior to this in the story, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah was approached to be the head of the academy. And he first went to ask his wife what she thought. And she was wary, and suggested that perhaps just as they were quick to depose Rabban Gamliel, they will depose him as well.

And his reply? He cited a folk saying: lishtamesh eynash yoma chada b’khasa d’mokra, ulmachar litvar. “Let a person use an expensive goblet one day, and let it break tomorrow.” In other words, just because we do not know what tomorrow will bring, should not stop us from doing what we need to do right now.

None of us does know what the future holds, or the eventual impact of the decisions we make today. So we make most of the expensive goblets we have been given today to teach our Torah, to serve our people, to transmit tradition and to exercise our creativity. And simply to do the best we can.

And I know, that as long as there are rabbis who identify with Reconstructionism, who desire a professional association committed to the highest standards and the highest ideals, there will be a need for the RRA.

I look forward to this opportunity to do what I can to continue strengthen our association, to learn and grow from the experience, to help make the RRA what you need it to be so you can continue do the awesome work that you do. I humbly thank you for the trust you have given to me, and I will do my best to live up to it.

Thank you.

A Very Pagan Hanukkah

 

Today is the fifth day of Hanukkah if you are reading this after sunset (which you probably are, since I didn’t post it until after sunset.) This is a special day of this eight day holiday because it is the first day in which we have more light than darkness. When we light the candles corresponding to the day of the holiday, we also have empty holes on the menorah corresponding with the days left. The fifth day is the first day when we have more candles than empty holes.

The stories of why we celebrate Hanukkah are well known. How the Maccabees led a revolt against King Antiochus who put severe restrictions on Jewish practice, and how that revolt was eventually successful. And how, upon entering the Temple to rededicate it after it had been defiled, the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil that ended up burning for eight.

12311154_10153753210644872_2676303480378424658_n

But perhaps the most basic story, the most visceral aspect of Hanukkah, is that we hold a festival during the darkest time of year. This is a story in and of itself, that facing a dark time of year, a community responds by creating light.

Indeed, a passage from our Talmud hints at this:

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, “Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity. (Avodah Zarah 8a)

The Talmud describes an eight day festival around the time of the winter solstice. And so while much is made about the pagan roots of Christmas trees, we should not neglect to notice the pagan roots of Hanukkah. And by pagan, I mean a recognition of and ritual acknowledgement of the natural cycles of the world. Judaism is rooted in earth-based spirituality.

We can imagine the sentiment expressed by Adam in this midrash (commentary). We can imagine what it must have been like to be the first human on earth, noticing the shortening of the days as summer turned into fall turned into winter. And we can imagine the fear that must bring, to think that darkness is going to be overwhelming the light, how that is a “the death heaven has decreed.” And then to imagine what it must have been like to then see the days growing longer, and to know that it is not the death of the world, but its rebirth.

We can agree with the rabbis: this cycle of darkness and light is worthy of celebration.

As our calendar is lunar-based, we don’t acknowledge the solstice per se. But Hanukkah does run through Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month, which is marked by the new moon. And the new moon means no moon. So Hanukkah does run over the new moon that is closest to the solstice, or, in other words, over the darkest night of the year that is closest to the longest night of the year.

[And in an interesting bit of weather related news for our geographic region, it was reported that Seattle is also seeing its darkest days in nine years.]

So while we often speak of Hanukkah as marking a revolution and a rededication, we can also celebrate Hanukkah as a rebirth—the rebirth of our world as we cycle through the seasons. (And interestingly the next holiday after Hanukkah is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, celebrating new buds and growth.) Days will soon grow longer, the amount of light will increase. This is “the way of the world,” and for that we are grateful.

And as we move towards the end of Hanukkah, we look upon the menorah and see that the light is increasing. As we look upon the menorah, at least for this night, when the light is greater than the darkness, let’s not think of Maccabees and swords, or jars and seals. Let’s think of the light itself, and how it brings us comfort and security, how we welcome back the lengthening of days, and how we, in our power, light up the darkness that surrounds us.

Pray, But Light the Candles Too

With Hanukkah beginning this Sunday night, it is time to retell the traditional story of Hanukkah, how a small band of Jewish rebels rose up against the oppressive regime of King Antiochus, the Greek ruler who imposed severe restrictions on the Jewish community and Jewish practice, even desecrating the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Once the rebellion was successful, the rebels, known as the Maccabees, went about rededicating the Temple and restoring Jewish worship.

As part of that rededication, the story goes, the Maccabees went to light the lamp that was meant to be continually lit. They found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it burned for eight. This, the ancient Jewish sages say in the Talmud, was the miracle of Hanukkah, and why the holiday is celebrated for eight days.

But this is only one tradition for the source of the length of the holiday. When we read the historical accounts of the Hanukkah story in the apocryphal biblical books I and II Maccabees, the reason is different. There is no mention of a small vial of oil burning for an extended period of time. Rather, upon rededicating the Temple, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, which they were unable to mark due the ongoing battles. Once the war was over and the Temple restored, the Jews were able to celebrate Sukkot, a seven-day holiday, and Shimini Atzeret, the separate festival which immediately follows Sukkot, and thus make an eight-day-long celebration. The Maccabees instituted the celebration of Hanukkah to remember the events, and the holiday lasts eight days to parallel the eight day celebration of the late Sukkot the Maccabees observed.

The two sources tell different stories, perhaps for different reasons. The historical sources want to glorify and highlight the military victory. The rabbinic sources want to put the focus on a divine miracle. In other words, the historical sources want to put the emphasis on human action and the rabbis want to put the emphasis on divine action.

While seemingly contradictory, the two can be harmonized. Narratively we can tell both stories together, how after the Maccabees were successful in their revolt, they went into the Temple and found the oil and their success was sealed by the miracle of the lamp. Thus the human acts and the divine act can be told seamlessly in one narrative. It can be both/and, and not either/or.

Harmonize these stories we must, for we need to tell them together, we can not choose one narrative over the other. We need both divine inspiration and human action.

It is by relying on both that we are able to navigate our lives. We are taught in our Jewish tradition that we are partners with God; in the beginning stories of Genesis, the stories of the Garden of Eden, God creates the world and then creates humans to take care of it. This, from the beginning of our sacred text, teaches us an important value. We look to God as a source of vision, but we must act ourselves to make that vision a reality.

I’m writing this in the wake of another major mass shooting in America, something that happens unfortunately on an all too regular basis. And in all the reaction, I was struck by the front page of the New York Daily News, and its sensationalist headline:

daily news

Irrespective of the specific political bent of the headlines, the editors are sending a strong message: platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” aren’t going to cut it when there are real steps we can take to abate the constant gun violence in our country.

So yes we must pray. Prayer is the means by which we can give voice to our ideals and articulate our hope and dreams. Prayers for peace, prayers for justice, prayers for healing are important in that they remind us that peace, justice and healing are values we hold in high importance.

And at the same time, we commit to do what we can to bring about peace, justice and healing.

Like the rabbis of the Talmud, we must see the miracle that is redemption, that is light out of darkness, that is the ability to overcome oppression. And like the authors of the Book of Maccabees, we must see the role we need to play to bring that to fruition.

The task is daunting. It is tempting at times to see the enormity of the task and resign ourselves to the fact that that human agency will never accomplish our greatest ideals. Or to rely solely on prayer without doing what is necessary. Will gun violence ever completely be wiped away from the face of the earth? Probably not. Will evil continue to exist? Will sickness and disaster continue to plague us? Probably yes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to bring about the better world we so desire.

In harmonizing the stories of Hanukkah, and in rebelling against our contemporary challenges, we would do well to remember another teaching from the ancient rabbis, from Pirke Avot: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21) For perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that the Maccabees lit it at all, knowing that it wasn’t enough.

With each night of Hanukkah, with each new candle we light, we remember an ancient story of redemption at the same time we remind ourselves that we have the power to increase the light. The darkness may return when the candles burn out, but we say our prayers and light them anyway.

Why I Support the Death Penalty. And Why I am Wrong.

Earlier this month Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in our state. In his February 11 remarks, the Governor said,

Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.

Because it was unclear that the death penalty can be applied equally in all cases, said the Governor, it was best to not use it at all. It was a decision he arrived at after much study and deliberation, and I respect this decision. This is a very reasoned argument and one which makes sense.

And I support it, while at the same time in general I support the death penalty.

I think it out of character sometimes, that I support capital punishment. I know many religious groups are in favor of its abolition. I think that I should, since I respect the dignity of human life, see each one of us as made in the image of God, and compassion and justice for my fellow human beings are part of my spiritual motivation.

At the same time, I am a student of political theory, and believe very much in the notion of a person as “political animal” in Aristotle’s term; we as individuals depend on others and create societies and institutions to help secure our interests. Thus we join as individuals into something greater than ourselves—a society governed by norms and rules and laws. Individuals find fulfillment in their society bonds and at the same time are limited by their responsibilities and obligations.

I read the Torah in a similar way—it is the story of a people whose experience of God is in part the drive to create a more perfect society. And infractions against one another—from the minor grievances to murder—are not just crimes against individuals, but they upset the fabric of society and are sins against God.

As the Torah teaches, when the fabric is torn it needs to be mended depending on the severity of crime. And in some cases the punishment for transgression is death. And lest you believe I am a literalist when it comes to reading text—that I support the death penalty just because it is written in the Torah—I believe what the text is teaching is that as an entity greater than the sum of its parts, a state has the right to mete out punishment and even kill one of it citizens if it deems the tear in the fabric to be that great.

Yet while I say “has the right,” what I feel moreso in my heart is, “I am not convinced that a state doesn’t have the right.” In other words, I support it with ambivalence, and am constantly reevaluating my position.

I didn’t always support it, but I remember one case that made me think differently about the death penalty. In May, 2000 two men lured seven employees of a Wendy’s in Queens, New York to the basement, where they bound and shot them at point blank range. Two survived what was supposedly a robbery. The perpetrators were quickly apprehended, and the case indeed became a death penalty case. What was shocking is that it was a clear case of cold blooded murder of these fast food workers with a clear motive and intent and without other mitigating factors like mental illness.

I remember when this happened and how it shifted my thinking—I began to ask myself, are there crimes that are so heinous that they warranted the penalty of death? And not because of justice for the victims or as a form of revenge, but because it is a crime against society? Are there crimes that are so heinous that we must say as a society we will not tolerate it by imposing such a punishment?

I think about this, and just as I think about the Torah in relation to this issue, I also think about the Talmud. For while the death penalty is recorded in the Torah, the rabbis in the Talmud have a different view. While they could not abrogate the death penalty completely—since they viewed the Torah as the word of God they could not overturn that word—they could do everything they could to make it impossible to implement.

In the Talmud the procedures of capital cases are so complex that it is nearly impossible to carry out the death penalty. A capital offense must be witnessed by two people who are not related to each other or the victim. They are questioned individually and their stories have to match exactly. Furthermore the witnesses are to have warned the accused that his crime would be punished by death, and the accused would have had to acknowledge the warning and still carried out the crime. Capital courts consist of at least 23 members, and the witnesses themselves are appointed executioners.

Needless to say, the penalty would not have been meted out lightly, if ever, and as the Talmud says in tractate Makkot, “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” The rabbinic view is that in theory the death penalty can be implemented, but in practice it never should.

This is why Governor Inslee’s moratorium is welcome. Like the rabbis of the Talmud, I am not prepared yet to say that the state does not have the right to execute one of its citizens once due process of law is followed. Yet I do agree that due process of law in capital cases in our contemporary society is problematic: It is costly and not applied equally. The disadvantaged are disproportionately tried in capital cases, and innocent people have been found guilty and sentenced to death. With issues of racism and classism present in our communities, we can not guarantee the law in capital cases (or in other cases) is applied equally in all instances. And we should give pause whenever we condone violence—even legally with civic sanction.

So we remember that the most serious crimes are not just crimes against the victims, but against us all. To respond we may reserve the right to execute. But because we are so fallible, because we are prone to make mistakes, because we are limited by our human nature, and because our desire for equality and fairness and life is so strong, let us never exercise that right.

“If the Ladder is Rickety, Don’t Rely on Miracles.”

Today is the last day of Hanukkah.

Much like the spices at Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, which are meant to remind us of the sweetness of Shabbat over the course of the rest of the week, so too does to fully-lit menorah we lit last night is meant to leave us with the power of light illuminating the darkness as we move into the rest of the year.

Hanukkah is a time to celebrate miracles. We tell the story of the Maccabees who, after defeating the Syrian-Greeks in a military conflict, rededicate the Temple and find a small amount of oil to light the menorah, the eternal light that was always lit in that sacred building. (Think of the ner tamid, the eternal light in our contemporary sanctuaries). While the amount of oil was enough for one night, say the ancient sages, it lasted 8, which was enough time to produce more oil. Thus the miracle of Hanukkah.

For those who have been by the TBH building recently you may have noticed that the reader board on the corner of 8th and Washington is different. Rather than tell the times of the services this coming week or announcing special events, I have taken it over to put a short message and teaching. With the website and emails, we have other ways of letting folks know what is going on; we don’t need another announcement board, but we can always use another means of teaching!

I’ve been selecting a new teaching each month or so, and for the month of Kislev through Hanukkah I took a quote from the Talmud in tractate Kiddushin, page 39b: “If the ladder is rickety, don’t rely on miracles.”

The quote is actually a paraphrase. The rabbis in the Talmud are speaking of the reward for doing a mitzvah (sacred obligation). They teach that if one performs a mitzvah, he or she is rewarded with long life, and if one does not, he or she is punished similarly.

But, say the sages, they have seen instances which seem to disprove this idea.

The specific example they bring refers to Deuteronomy 22:6: “If, along the road,  you chance upon a birds’ nest, in a tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”

The sages relate a story of a man who tells his son to climb a ladder to collect eggs from a nest, but to be sure to shoo the mother away first in keeping with the Torah teaching. He did so, but climbing back down, he fell and died. Where is the long life in reward for following this mitzvah, they ask? (Especially since in the Torah it refers specifically to the reward of long life.)

First the sages question the occurrence, but one rabbi vouches that it happened. Another suggests that the youth was thinking sinful thoughts, but that too is dismissed. Ultimately they hold by their original thought, that performing mitzvot and good deeds leads to a better life. But in this instance, they say, “the ladder was rickety, and would have caused injury. And if injury is likely, one must not rely on a miracle.”

In other words, if something is dangerous, be realistic, and don’t think you are going to miraculously be saved. And maybe if you see something broken, don’t rely on a miracle to take care of it, go out and fix it yourself.

Hanukkah is a celebration of miracles. We tell the story of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight. The Bible too speaks of miracles of seas parting to facilitate escape and the sun standing still to lengthen the day. But those are not the miracles we recognize in our own lives. The miracles in our lives are the blessings we did not at first recognize or even know we needed, but when they come to us, and we see them, our lives are altered.

And as the Talmud teaches, while we should be open to miracles from outside ourselves, another type of miracle is the ability to affect our own reality. Hanukkah is a celebration of the success of the human endeavor to overcome one’s station and affect radical change. The ability to see a “rickety” situation and not rely on something or someone else to change it for us–that we as humans are not static but dynamic, not dependent but independent–is a miracle as well.

Suffering is Precious

When I was preparing for a text study on the closing chapters of 2 Kings, I came across the following midrash (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a-b):

Our masters taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders–R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiva–came to visit him.

R. Akiva spoke up and said, “Suffering is precious.”

At that, R. Eliezer said to his disciples, “Prop me up, that I may hear [better] the words of Akiva, my disciple, who has said, ‘Suffering is precious.’ What proof have you, Akiva, my son, for saying it?” R. Akiva replied, “Master, I draw such inference from the verse ‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . . and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’ [2 Kings 21:1-2]. I consider this verse in the light of another: ‘These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out [for widespread instruction]’ [Prov. 25:1]. Now, is it conceivable that Hezekiah king of Judah taught Torah to the whole world, to all of it, but not to Manasseh, his own son? Of course not! Yet all the pains that Hezekiah took with him and all the labor that he lavished upon him did not bring him onto the right path. Only Manasseh’s suffering did so, as is written, ‘And the Lord spoke to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed. Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains and the host of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles. . . . And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and He answered his entreaty’ [2 Chron. 33:10-13)]. You may thus infer how precious is suffering.”

Rabbi Akiva explains that King Manasseh of Judah did not follow the correct path, not even when his father Hezekiah taught him Torah. The only thing that brought Manasseh close to God is when he was captured by the Assyrians and held captive. In his suffering, he called out to God. Thus, Akiva says, suffering is precious because it brings a person closer to God.

Sometimes we look for texts, and sometimes texts find us. This jumped out at me because not long ago like Rabbi Eliezer I was suffering on my sickbed, struck down with meningitis. I am doing well now, but I still have the mindset of recovering.

I was struck by Rabbi Akiva’s comment. At first glance I am repulsed by his suggestion. He suggests that there is value in suffering, that suffering elevates one, that suffering brings one closer to God. For those who have suffered, in whatever form, there appears to be no redeeming value to it.

Yet when I read this over again, I had a different reaction. Suffering is “precious,” perhaps, because it gives one the opportunity to have a new spiritual perspective one didn’t have before. This doesn’t mean that we should wish suffering for ourselves or another. This doesn’t mean we can grow spiritually in other ways, in the absence of suffering. But when it does happen, if it does happen, it gives us an opportunity.

I don’t wish meningitis on anyone. But I will take the fact that it happened to ask myself, is there any lesson here? Is there anything I can take away from this experience that will then make my post-meningitis life different, or better? To have the opportunity to think deeply about that question is in and of itself precious.