Hanukkah: Complex Holiday for Complex Times

Once again, Jewish people will kindle light for peace for all.

Lansing State Journal, December 10, 2006

After the Jewish people had dwelled in the land of Israel for more than 1,000 years, the Seleucid Greeks occupied the land and outlawed Jewish religious practices. Their defeat by the Maccabees, a local band of Jewish warriors, is commemorated at Hanukkah.

But that’s not the whole story. Roughly 1,800 years ago the rabbis in ancient Israel decided not to base the celebration upon a military conquest. They prescribed that we read from Zechariah at Hanukkah, “Not by might, not by power, but by the spirit.” They emphasized the miracle that after the Temple was restored, there was only enough oil to burn for one night; and yet the Temple lights burned for eight days. This miracle sustained the optimism, faith and determination of the Jewish people in exile.

In the last century, a new miracle occurred. Three years after the end of the Nazi Holocaust, the State of Israel was established. While there had been a small Jewish presence there throughout history, it was in the early 20th century that refugees from European oppression poured into British-held Palestine.

In 1917, the British government endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration. In 1948, the dream came to fruition.

Like Hanukkah itself, our story is complex. Israel has suffered repeated attacks from its Arab neighbors.

Following an unprovoked invasion in 1967, Israel occupied Arab lands along its borders to protect itself from future attacks. This occupation has endured nearly 40 years. These years have seen repeated terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians; with each attack, attempts to negotiate a return of occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state get sidetracked.

In the interest of security, Israel has taken decisive military actions, resulting in yet more suffering, bloodshed and desire for revenge. New attacks bring new reprisals; new reprisals bring new attacks. Moderate voices in both camps are drowned out by shrieks of revenge.

Still, we remember: “Not by might, not by power.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered immeasurably at one another’s hands. We pray for the day we can dwell alongside our Palestinian brothers and sisters in peace. Despite tragic events driving our communities apart, the Jewish community continues to stand up vigilantly for the rights and safety of our Islamic neighbors, as we did following the Sept. 11 attacks.

And we remain confident that when Israel’s neighbors recognize her right to exist, when the killing of Jews is no longer glorified in Arab schools, when terrorism is denounced once and for all, the occupation will quickly end.

Hanukkah, which falls on the evening of Dec. 15 this year, is a complex holiday for complex times. We kindle a light in the darkest time of year, and recognize a glimmer of hope. Could Israelis and Palestinians lay down their arms, mourn their losses together, and join in creating a safe and peaceful future? Or is there too much darkness for a tiny light to penetrate?

Perhaps. But at Hanukkah, I pray for a miracle.

D’var Torah: Jonah

At Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the connection between Purim and Yom Ha-KI-purim, the day that is like Purim. This connection is not obvious, since we associate Purim with fun and Yom Kippur with dead seriousness. But today we are treated to the most exquisite humor in the Tanakh. This is not the pathetic humor of victimization in the Book of Esther—they tried to kill us but instead we killed them, ha, ha, ha. Nor is it the sick humor, the pulp fiction grossology of perverse stabbings, dissections, and bodily excretions that has kept the book of Judges almost entirely out of the Siddur and well out of reach of minors. No, if it is introspective humor we crave, laughs at an antihero that are really laughs at ourselves, then we need look no further than the Book of Jonah.

The trouble with The Book of Jonah is that its four little chapters touch on so many potent religious themes that we run the risk of taking it too seriously. The rabbis saw the story as a display of God’s power to control the forces of nature, and a testimony to God’s merciful compassion. Christians likened Jonah’s fish-encapsulated retreat with Jesus’ dark night of the soul, when he spent three days under the earth. The Book of Luke also saw Jonah’s conversion of the Ninevites as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ power to convert the gentile nations.

These lofty pronouncements all miss the point. Jonah was accomplished in his profession, a high achiever in the art of prophecy. At least that was his public face. But the story takes us below the surface for the unmasking of the real Jonah. The distinguished Jonah, God’s anointed prophet who can change the course of mighty empires with a few well-chosen words, reveals a very different inner persona: the schlemiel, the coward, the cynic, the escaper, the quitter, the overgrown crybaby, the hard-hearted tyrant. If we are doing our homework, at this moment we should each see another distinguished person being unmasked in this same way: ourselves. By the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as we near the climax of this season of introspection, a less-than-pretty picture may start to emerge. The laundry list of sins we beat our chest over several times today may actually evoke dimensions of ourselves we would rather have kept under wraps.

That’s the beauty of Jonah: the more we can laugh at his antics, the more we can laugh at our own. And the gate of laughter is often a more effective entryway into the hidden recesses of the heart than is the gate of remorse.

The story begins with a prophetic calling. “The word of Adonai came to Jonah: Go at once to Nineveh and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” This is a common motif in the prophetic literature. Typically the prophet will confess his inadequacy to carry out the prophecy; Moses probably gets the prize for making the greatest number of excuses. But sooner or later he agrees to do it. Isaiah’s excuse is “I am a man of unclean lips”, so an angels purifies his lips with a hot coal. Then God said, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah, in a line that has crept into presidential politics this year, answers: “hineni sh’lacheini”—“Here I am; send me!” But only Jonah actually does what the other prophets may have secretly wanted to do—he sails away to the other side of the known world.

I used to know a young Catholic priest who openly shared his resistance to hospital chaplaincy. He knew that some of the patients carried more suffering than we wanted to handle. So he walked up to each hospital room and did what he called a “room dance”. He walked quickly by the doorway before the patient noticed he was there, and if things looked too disturbing he would wiggle around, one foot ready to go in, the other foot pulling back. He then took another quick peek in the hope that the patient had fallen asleep; or he suddenly remembered that a patient in good spirits on the next floor had asked him to bring something, and he had to go get it.

Jonah kept his escape act going even when God had created a thunderstorm on his behalf. When the sailors were doing whatever they could to stay afloat, Jonah fell into a deep sleep. And when all else failed, he preferred to drown rather than go to Nineveh. Twice in the last chapter, Jonah will say, “I’d rather die than live”. Like a child who tries to hold her breath rather than let in a situation she’s trying to avoid, Jonah misses no opportunity to escape from what he needs to do.

We have a children’s book from Elischa’s childhood about a puppy with a toothache. The puppy is so terrified of the dentist that he endures incredible pain rather than seek help. He runs away from home and hides in the forest, until his father finally finds him and brings him to the dentist. Within seconds the dentist pulls the tooth out from his trembling patient, and the pain is gone. This is Jonah’s trap. Escape is much more painful than simply doing what he has to do.

It is in this setup, trying everything he can to escape, that this preposterous situation of being swallowed by a fish interferes with his plans of avoidance. Jonah has become a child with a tantrum whose parent has called a time-out. He’s stuck in the fish belly for three days, even longer than we sit here in the sanctuary without food or water, to reflect on his situation. And for a moment he seems to get it. He drafts a Psalm in the style of King David—“You cast me into the depths. The waters engulfed me. Yet You brought my life up from the pit. I will sacrifice to You with loud thanksgiving.” Then, in the midst of his poetic reverie, the magic words fall out of his mouth: “What I have vowed I will perform.” The holiday-at-sea is over. The fish brings him right back where he started, and just two pesukim later he arrives at the gates of Nineveh. He did what he had to do, and he did it great. The Ninevites repented and God saved the city.

This would be the end of the story if we focused only on external events as covered by CNN. But even after facing his fear and accomplishing his goal, Jonah managed to mess up again. When God saved the city, “This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. I would rather die than live.” As a parent, I can relate to that line, “Isn’t this just what I said before?” There is, of course, nothing in the text suggesting that Jonah had said anything of the kind. But kids seem to relish saying, “I told you so”, even if they didn’t, when things go wrong. But Jonah’s melt-down is particularly absurd since nothing went wrong. Actually, one thing did go wrong. Jonah had repented when he was inside the fish, but apparently nothing had changed.

Alan Lew tells a story in his book about his rebellious teenage daughter. She had gotten so wild that in desperation the parents sent her to a wilderness survival training. On the last day of the program, the kids split into small groups and went into the mountains on their own. A fierce storm suddenly broke out and the group got lost. For four days they battled high winds, rain, and snow. Their food and water ran out, and some of them got hypothermia. Lew’s daughter kept one girl alive by lying on top of her and keeping her warm all night with her body heat. Finally, after they lost all hope, a helicopter spotted them and they were rescued.

When this girl came home, she was radiant. She said that when she was afraid she would die, she had a realization how much she loved her parents and how bad she felt about the way she had behaved. Now everything would change. But within two days, everything was back to exactly the way it was: tantrums, fights, staying out all night. Nothing had changed.

Like Jonah, Alan Lew’s daughter discovered that the resolution to change is not enough to make change happen. That’s why we don’t make New Years’ resolutions at Rosh Hashanah—they would only be vows that we hadn’t kept, and that we’d need to annul at Kol Nidre. As W.C. Fields said, “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking; it’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

It may be funny to see ourselves make heroic pronouncements, and then go back and do the same silly things we always did. But when we’re desperately trying to practice teshuvah and become sealed in the Book of Life, the joke may escape us. Fortunately the story with Alan Lew’s daughter had a happy ending. After six months, the girl really did change how she lived and how she related to her parents. All it took was took time, patience, and forgiveness.

As for Jonah, his story doesn’t last long enough for him to finally get it. We see only a gentle fatherly God trying to educate a defiant Jonah in rachmunes. When Jonah whines that he’d rather die than face the humiliation of preaching doom to people whose city God saved, God plays shrink with a reframing question: “Oh, are you that deeply grieved?” Jonah leaves town, sits around pouting for a while, and then God gives him a shady plant to help him keep cool. Jonah, like a kid with a new birthday present, is thrilled. But the next day the plant died and Jonah found himself stuck in the heat. As usual, Jonah pouts and wishes he were dead. Once again, Dr. God asks, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?”

Then comes the famous punchline: “You cared about this plant, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand infants and lots of cows?” This time Jonah is caught. All he has cared about all along has been himself. HE didn’t want to go to Nineveh, HE didn’t want to be humiliated if the disaster he predicted didn’t happen, HE had love only for a plant because it kept him cool. It never occurred to him that babies and cows have feelings too.

This is not a very satisfactory ending. We don’t know what Jonah did with this instruction; we don’t know if he finally grew up and opened his heart. Yet it is an appropriate ending for Yom Kippur. We’ve been in the fish’s belly for nearly 24 hours, hopefully we’ve gotten a glimpse of who we are below the surface and what’s going on in our hearts. We’re going to continue to plea for mercy from God; but as Jonah was shown, It’s we who need to learn mercy, both to others and to ourselves. The irony with Jonah’s selfishness was that it led him to so much misery and self-destruction. Last week we had a birthday in our family, and saw a usually loving and cheerful child torment herself with her new gifts. The more she had, the more she wanted. The more she tried to take it all in, the more agitated she became. Sometimes selfishness can be inseparable from self-destruction. That’s why Jonah kept wailing that he wanted to die.

Such foibles are less amusing to watch when they are going on inside of ourselves. But hopefully laughing at Jonah can help us not to take ourselves so seriously as well, and to open our hearts to a place of self-acceptance.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Yom Kippur 2004

Post-Election Message

Dear Friends at Kehillat Israel,

A long and painful election season has come to a close. I know there are many in our congregation who have put extraordinary effort into the campaign, and many who may be bitterly disappointed at the outcomes. After actively participating in the “No On 2” campaign and voting my conscience on the candidates, I share that disappointment. My optimism may have diminished, but my hope is as strong as ever.

There are few outcomes this year, on either the local or national level, that reflect the views and the values of the large majority of Jewish voters. Religious agenda contrary to our own have swept increasingly into the political agenda, and fear and hatred of those who are different has been written into our state’s constitution. The separation of church and state, the great principle of American democracy that has protected generations of Jews seeking freedom, prosperity, and security, is under siege. And, personally, I share the view recently expressed by Alan Dershowitz that current American foreign policies have both weakened the position of the United States on a global level and threatened the security of the State of Israel.

While we may lose our optimism at a time like this, we do not need to lose our hope. Throughout recorded history, Am Yisrael chai (the Jewish people live). We have weathered the best and the worst political climates, not to mention the most extreme forms of persecution. Throughout the 20th century, we proudly and audaciously sang Hatikva (“The Hope”); even in the most unimaginably dark days of the Shoah when our physical survival seemed doomed, this hopeful vision of a new Jewish future never escaped our lips.

What exactly is the difference between optimism and hope? Optimism, though much better for our physical and spiritual health than pessimism, is nonetheless a naive faith that somehow things will be better tomorrow than they are today. Hope is a confident mental posture, based in fact and reason combined with moral courage and trust in God, that we can join forces with one another and act in partnership with the Divine to participate in creating a positive future. For religious sceptics, God need not be part of this equation; yet a faith in the God that Michael Lerner defines as “the voice of what could and ought to be, calling us from the future and moving us toward the fulfillment of our possibilities” makes the process a lot easier.

Hope is more enduring than optimism; it can sustain us to do the work we have been called upon to do. What have we been called upon to do? “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream!” (Amos 5:24) “To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.” (Isaiah 58:6)

We have been warned that the Temple was destroyed because of Israel’s idolatry. Idolatry is not statue worship; it is the worship of money, power, and the idols of material culture. More fundamentally, idolatry is bowing down to the false gods of greed, hatred, and fear. If we as Jews are out of the step with the direction our society is going, that is no reason to give up who we are and what we stand for.

This year I have been proud to be part of KI as our congregants have built houses with Habitat, fed the hungry, recycled their printer cartridges, supported overseas Jewish communities, rallied against global warming, and struggled against unjust legislation. We plan to intensify our commitment to Tikkun Olam in the course of the year to come. The more injustice we discover in the world around us, the more opportunity we have to raise up the holy sparks from out of the ashes.


Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

Presentation for Global Warming Awareness Day 2004

Michigan State Capitol, Lansing

When the Israelites were about to enter the promised land in Deuteronomy 11, God told them, “If you love Me and serve me with all your heart and all your soul, then I will grant the rain for your land in its proper season: the early rain and the late rain. You will gather in your new grain, wine, and oil, and I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle—thus you will eat and be satisfied.” This was God’s plan: rain in its proper time, a healthy climate, and an abundant planet…But only if our love for the creator of heaven and earth is never compromised by our short-sightedness: “Take heed not to be lured away to serve other gods and to worship them.” What are other gods? The god of greed. The god of materialism. The god of exploitation. And especially, the god of fear. “For if you are lured away to serve these other gods, the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord has given to you.”

God’s message couldn’t be clearer. God is not interested in market share, or output capacity, or deregulation. God wants our love and devotion, our stewardship of the earth, our appreciation and respect for the fragile ecological balance that sustains our lives.

Every morning, we Jews thank God for creating our body as a precision instrument: if a single organ is open when it should be closed, if a single cavity is closed when it should be open, our lives could not be sustained. So it is with our environment: if the average summer temperature increases by too many degrees, if Lakes Michigan and Huron recede by too many feet, if the proportion of greenhouse gasses to oxygen increases by too many percentage points, then whole species of plants and animals are threatened, whole sectors of the economy are in jeopardy, and the abundance of our fields, lakes, and streams is in peril.

In Isaiah 5:24 we read:

Assuredly, as straw is consumed by a tongue of fire and hay shrivels as it burns. Their stock shall become like rot, and their buds shall blow away like dust. For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of Hosts.

Again, the message is clear: Things are heating up, as long as we choose to ignore the call…the call that comes just a few verses later in Isaiah 6:3, the call of the sacredness of God’s earth and everything on it, the call that blared forth from the mouths of angels in many tongues to the nations of the earth:

Kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai tzevaoth
Sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus Deus sabaoth

Holy holy holy is the LORD of hosts.

M’lo kol ha’aretz kvodo.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria Tua.

The whole earth is full of His glory.

It sounds so simple—just love God and appreciate the divine glory of every corner of our planet.

It means to keep our eyes and ears open, to ignore the false prophets of denial, who dismiss global warming as some kind of urban legend. For it’s not too late to heed Isaiah’s warning:

“Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears, and seal its eyes. Lest, seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself. For how long? Till towns lie waste without inhabitants and houses without people, and the ground lies waste and desolate.”

We don’t need to wait that long. There’s an election coming up in just five months, and we can send the false prophets of denial back to where they came from.

And there’s plenty of work to do before November. Today you are going to learn about some exciting legislative initiatives we can support today, about your opportunity to buy a fuel-efficient hybrid SUV produced right here in Michigan by the end of the summer, about the findings of intrepid scientists and the contributions of responsible business leaders, and you will come away with a cornucopia of suggestions for reversing global warning, both through what you do in your own life and how you support the sacred work of the leaders in this field.

In the words of Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow drop from heaven and soak the earth, and make it bring forth vegetation, yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating, so is the word that issues from the mouth of God. Yea, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure. Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Right now the trees are going it alone, absorbing as much of the carbon generated by us Michiganians as they can. So let’s give the trees a round of applause.

And now let’s be silent for just a few moments, turn off our motors, releasing no more CO2 than what we naturally exhale. And if we listen carefully, we may be able to hear the trees clapping their hands for the work we are doing on their behalf.

God bless all of you, and God bless this beautiful state!

D’var Torah: Haftarah Shemini

Despite our fascination with food, I’ve decided not to talk about today’s parashah, with its detailed descriptions of kosher and treyf sources of meat, neither of which are ever served at a KI kiddush. Instead I want to look at our wonderful, albeit long, haftarah from the Second Book of Samuel.

The selection contains two crucial events in the development of Israelite civilization: the arrival of the ark in Jerusalem and the revelation of God’s unconditional covenant never to abandon the house of David and its claim to the royal throne. Sandwiched between these two monumental moments is a bawdy snippet of domestic comedy which, in my reading, is essential for understanding the events surrounding it.

Here’s the deal: David, in his exultation at the arrival of the ark, partied ecstatically, displaying such abandon in his love of God that he was oblivious to being on center stage on MTV, raising more eyebrows than Britney and Janet Jackson combined. Clad only in an ephod, which seems to be a kind of miniskirt with shoulder straps, amidst his leaping and whirling he let it all hang out.

When the party was over his wife Michal, or rather, his first of several wives, gave him the third degree. ”Look how the King of Israel honored himself today, exposing himself today to the eyes of the slavegirls of his subjects, just as one of the riffraff might completely expose himself.” David snapped back and took all the wind out of her sails: “I’m the one that God choice to be ruler over Israel. Not your father, and not his family! So I’m going to dance before God, and dishonor myself even more, and be low even in my eyes. But among those slaves girls that you are talking about, I will be honored!” The narrator ends coyly with the punchline: “And so Michal, the daughter of Saul, never had a child, up to the day she died.”

In preparing the haftarah, I saw how the Masorites, the medieval editors of biblical text, colluded in the joke with their musical trope marks. Twice, first in thought and later in words, Michal took on the naggy tone of the jealous spouse through repetitive trope motifs. First in 2 Samuel 6:16, when Michal looked out the window, what she saw and despised was King David leaping and whirling. And in her rant at David, the same musical motif is chanted three times naggingly in the phrase “that he exposed himself today before the eyes of the slave girls of his subject.”

But I didn’t fully grasp the significance of all this low comedy until I discovered, the hard way, how close to home it struck. It was a typical morning in the Zimmerman house. I had just finished exercising this week’s haftarah, and while preparing breakfast I started thinking about a couple of programs I was preparing, a meeting that evening, and other KI business. A couple of times my wife had tried to talk to me about a couple of things: putting away the pans in the right drawer, not leaving my papers around, paying the credit card bill on time—I’m not sure exactly what, which of course was part of the problem. Then I indiscretely said something about this hilarious haftarah I was working on, and how the trope reinforced the motif of the nagging wife while David was caught up with the serious business of serving God and running the kingdom. She then pointed out, not exactly dispassionately, that both the biblical narrative and the melodic chant setting were the work of men—male chauvinist pigs who had their heads in the clouds and either ignored the legitimate concerns of their wives altogether or else dismissed them as bitching and nagging, just as you know who had been ignoring or dismissing everything his wife was trying to tell him that morning. I thought about that for a while, first in the uncomfortable space of confronting my own way of being in relationship and later in the safer terrain of analyzing this week’s haftarah. David had become trapped by his own self-importance. The man who could boast, “I will dishonor myself even more and be low in my own esteem, while being honored among slavegirls” was the man who soon thereafter was to willfully sacrifice the life of one of his most faithful soldiers out of royal arrogance and blind lust for the man’s wife.

If the text had eliminated David’s argument with Michal, then the conquering hero who rescued the holy ark, God’s eternally anointed one, would be larger than life, like the marble statue of a Roman emperor, a man on whose countenance the sun rose and set, a demagogue who would honor his subjects by letting them die in his name and show his respects and admiration by exercising his conjugal rights to his subject’s comely wife. Instead, we are given a glimpse of a very human David, a flawed human being, a petty self-centered little man whose lack of respect for the concerns of a wife who had once saved his life by defying her own father was no different from his lack of respect for his loyal soldier Uriah, and later on his obliviousness to the faithful subjects who risked their lives to restore his kingdom after the revolt of Absalom.

Until David fired his retort at Michal, we might have mistaken his flash dance for a genuine abandonment to the love of God, in the spirit of the Tibet sage Milarepa, who spent so many years meditating in a cave that when his sister expressed outrage at his nakedness, he meekly apologized that he had become so immersed in the light of higher awareness that he forgot about his sex organ. No, David may have forgotten his respect and humility while he was busy making history, but he obviously had not forgotten his appetites. Similarly, the reader might have mistaken the Prophet Nathan’s extraordinary prophecy of God’s unconditional support for the House of David as a blessing of immortality, except that we had already received a premonition of David’s tragic character flaw. In the brilliantly crafted Shakespearean prose of the Books of Samuel, that was all the clue we needed that the prophet’s blessing would turn out to be a curse like Midas’s touch—generation after generation locked into deadly battles for succession. This curse has continued long after the royal thrones of Judah and Israel were destroyed. Eventually it was a dispute over who would sit upon the celestial throne of Moshiach ben David that led to millennia of Christian persecution of Jews. Bathsheba’s embraces—and Michal’s marital neglect—came at a very high price.

In this era of two-income households and unbounded hours of professional obligations, it is more important than ever to recognize the lesson in this haftarah. None of us and none of our urgent projects are important enough to compromise the integrity and well-being of our family lives. Our partners and our children are no less deserving of our attention than our work.

I’ve tried to demonstrate how the domestic encounter between Michal and David is essential for understanding the monumental events surrounding it in this haftarah. As we approach Yom Hashoah this weekend, with its theme this year of “justice and humanity,” we can pray for that the day may soon arrive when all human beings are treated with respect and each of us can honor the humanity and dignity of every person in our lives.

—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
April, 2004D’var Torah: Haftarah Shemini