Yearly Archives: 2022

A few of our favourite things

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on what makes this time of year special

Every holiday contains an element of nostalgia, memories of past celebrations with family, friends and community. But there’s something truly special about the memories associated with Chanukah, and there are a number of reasons why this may be.

First, there’s just something cosy about wintertime and Chanukah is the only holiday we celebrate during this season. Almost everyone loves cuddling up in a warm jumper with a piping hot cup of tea or cocoa. There’s also the mystical feeling of being in a darkened room illuminated by the warm glow of candles.
And as children, it’s a rare treat to stay up past dark, with the added excitement and anticipation of exchanging gifts and the joy of spinning the dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) with your loved ones.

And the food! Nothing beats the aroma and flavour of deliciously crisp latkes (levavot). But then there are also the doughnuts (sufganiyot) and the chocolate gelt.

In short, while Chanukah itself might be a rather minor holiday, it has understandably come to occupy a significant place in our collective conscience because of all the wonderful memories associated with it. And each year offers a chance to create new memories and establish new traditions.

Last year I had my first experience of Belsize’s Chanukah Market. I had no idea what to expect and couldn’t believe how truly wonderful it was. The food! The music! The food! The knickknacks! Have I mentioned the food?! As wonderful as the event was, I realised that what was truly special about it was the nostalgia that was on offer: sweets and treats from the continent, a love of which has been passed down for generations; familiar festive songs; affordable gifts that can bring a bit of joy to our loved ones; and most importantly, the warm embrace of community.

Judaism is a religion deeply rooted in memory – sometimes those memories are more theoretical and academic, other times they’re more visceral. What makes Chanukah special is not so much a deeply religious experience, but rather those deeply held memories that have come to define so much of who we are: a people that values family, friends, tradition, and – of course – food!

The opportunity of a blank slate

How will you prepare for the High Holydays? asks Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

While most people would tell you their favourite Jewish holiday is Chanukah (for the gifts and food), Passover (for the family and food) or maybe even Purim (for the costumes and food), my favourite holiday is actually Yom Kippur (hint: not for the food).

What I love about Yom Kippur – as well as Rosh Hashanah – is its transformative nature. Every year, we are provided with a chance to start again – unencumbered by any missteps of the previous year, as long as we take seriously the call to right any wrongs we may have committed against others.

Therefore the question is: what will you make of this ‘tabula rasa’? The High Holydays present us with an open door onto an entirely new world of possibilities. If you find yourself on a path that no longer excites you, will you seize this opportunity to find a new one that does? Will you use the contemplative and introspective naturof the Holydays to engage in honest internal dialogue? Or will you let this annual chance for change pass you by?

For the most part, the High Holydays can be whatever you allow. They can be beautiful, powerful, and even life-altering, or they can be an inconvenience, a bore, or merely a chance to socialise.

The nature of your Holyday experience is based partly on whether you allow yourself to be fully present in the moment, but mostly on how you prepare yourself for this special time of year. That might mean reading through the Machzor (prayer book) in advance to understand better the liturgy, listening to a podcast on Teshuvah (repentance), attending a class on spiritual themes of the Holydays, and more.

The point is: you can’t just show up on the day, having given little thought to its significance and expect to have a meaningful experience. At the very least, you must prepare yourself mentally and spiritually to be open to possibility. And if you do, this just may be the year that you learn to love the High Holydays as much as I do.

Encountering the Divine

Where do you feel most connected to God? asks Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

There’s an old Chasidic tale about a rabbi and his son. Every day, the rabbi and his son would walk to synagogue together for morning prayers, but one day the son told his father to go ahead without him. The father got to the synagogue, put on his tallit and tefillin, and began to lead the service. When they got to the Shema, the father looked around but didn’t see his son. He thought this was curious but continued with his prayers. When he finished his silent prayers, he looked around and still didn’t see his son. Now he was starting to worry. Finally, at the end of the service as he was putting away his tallit, the father turned around and his son was right there behind him. The same thing happened for a few days and the father’s worry turned into curiosity. The next day the rabbi decided to follow his son to see where he was going instead of the synagogue.

From behind a neighbour’s tree, the father watched his son walk out of the front door, but instead of walking down the street to the synagogue, the son turned down a path into the woods. Keeping his distance, the father followed his son into the woods until his son stopped in a clearing, put on his tallit and tefillin and began to pray. The father watched in relief and confusion – he was relieved that his son was praying, but why did he come to the woods to do this? The father waited until his son concluded his prayers before approaching him.

Just as the son was putting his tallit away, his father came out of hiding. “Beni, my boy, what are you doing out here?”

“I am praying, Abba.” “I can see. But why do you come to the woods to pray? Why not pray with us at the synagogue?”

“I come here to connect with God,” the boy replied.

“But my boy, it doesn’t matter if you’re in nature or the synagogue – God is the same everywhere.”

“I know, Abba, but I am not.”

This story rings true for so many of us. How much more likely are we to have a spiritual experience out in nature – walking on the Heath, visiting the seaside, or enjoying a tea in the garden – than sitting in synagogue? But there is one pitfall with this parable: it only addresses the profundity of encountering the Divine on one’s own. Empirical evidence shows one is far more likely to feel a connection to something greater than oneself when participating in a group experience.

I’d say it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation. We can feel that connection in both environments, but our experience in each space helps to inform and support the other. This summer, as you head out for a walk on the Heath, to swim in the ponds, to visit the coast, or just sit in the garden, take time to reflect on how you feel. Can you sense the warmth of the sun inside your body as well as on the outside? Do the subtle hints of fragrance on the wind bring any memories to mind? Whatever it is that you notice in those moments – those sensations that lift you up and bring you joy – try to hold on to them and carry them with you when you’re next in Synagogue. As you sit in your seat and let the beautiful song of the choir spill over you, close your eyes and recall those moments in nature. You might find it will profoundly change your experience of being in Synagogue.

On Fruit and Transformation

Thought Shavuot was all about dairy foods? Think again, says Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

When you think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what do you picture as the forbidden fruit they ate? You might imagine an apple though we have no true idea what grew on the Tree of Knowledge. However, history has provided plenty of hypotheses.

Our sages have suggested the fruit might have been a grape, reasoning that nothing brings on more trouble than wine. Or it might have been a fig, since immediately upon eating it, Adam and Eve saw they were naked and made loin cloths out of nearby fig leaves.

But the most interesting hypothesis I’ve read about the forbidden fruit is that it was wheat. One might dismiss this as wheat is not a fruit, but we must remember we’re dealing with rabbinic logic here!

In ancient times there were two main grains that were widely cultivated: barley and wheat. Even though it is hearty and healthy, it’s not so easy on the stomach, so our ancestors avoided making barley into bread. Instead, they used it forstews, beer or animal feed. Wheat was held in much higher esteem, asit could be ground into a very fine flour for making easily digested bread.

Our sages also teach that the first solid food most children ate was wheat bread, which their parents would feed them once they started talking. This suggests a direct connection between wheat and knowledge, so sages identify the forbidden fruit as this grain.

But the symbolism of wheat and barley goes even deeper. In ancient Israel, farmers would plant wheat and barley seeds in the autumn, just in time to be nourished by the winter rains. However, the barley grows faster and would be harvested in March or April, while the wheat would be harvested in May or June. In the Torah, the barley harvest is associated with Pesach as the Israelites would make an offering of barley to God then. Fifty days later, the Israelites would celebrate Shavuot and bring an offering of bread, made of the finest flour from their wheat harvest.

Of course, the importance of Pesach and Shavuot extends beyond the agrarian, as they remind us of the two most central events in our people’s history. Pesach celebrates our liberation from enslavement and the birth of our people, and Shavuot celebrates the day God gave us the Torah and we attained knowledge.

Shavuot’s association with wheat, a grain so tied up with knowledge, led our sages to teach that ‘without wheat, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no wheat’.

The 50-day journey that takes us from Pesach to Shavuot is called the Omer. The essence of this period is to see ourselves transform from being merely free animals into cognitive humans – finding our humanity through the wisdom of the Torah.

On this journey from Pesach to Shavuot, I encourage you to manifest your fullest potential as a human. And if you find yourself stuck, just remember Adam and Eve, who taught us that even the simplest of acts (like eating an apple) can prove to be truly transformative.

Spring cleaning for the soul

While many Jews will spend the day after Purim resting and reflecting on the previous night’s festivities, a small group of people will already be looking ahead one month and beginning their preparations for Pesach. I know it’s crazy to think about, but the time for eating matzah will soon be upon us. And while some people might spend a week or two (and many only a day or two) looking up new recipes, loading up on groceries and cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, few people consider the spiritual preparations the holiday demands.

You see, just as Pesach can be viewed as the Jewish approach to spring cleaning, some rabbis say that we should treat the holiday as a chance to do some spring cleaning of our souls – a bit like a Yom Kippur 2.0.

The Maggid of Kozhnitz – an early and influential Chassidic rabbi – famously taught that just as we prepare for Pesach by clearing our homes of all signs of chametz, so too we must prepare for the holiday by clearing our souls of all negative inclinations. Pesach, he explains, is a joyful holiday – one that celebrates freedom and new beginnings – and requires us to be open to the joy these blessings bring. So just as we must wash the dirt off our windows to let in the most sunlight, we must also clear away the grime of our negativity if we are going to let in the joy of the holiday.   So how do we clear away our negative inclinations? The same way we clear our homes of chametz. We start the search for chametz in the places where we are most likely to eat it – in our kitchens and dining rooms – so we need to start looking for negativity where we most often exhibit it. Do you find yourself speaking poorly about other people more often than you should? Then you will want to use this month to be more aware of what you say when speaking of others. Do you find that you don’t treat your body as well as you should? Then this is the perfect time to think more about what you eat and how you stay healthy. No one knows you better than yourself, so take some time to identify one or two aspects of your life on which you would like to focus.

Now, before you worry about recalling every aspect of your life in which you can be negative, remember that we are only required to search for chametz in places we can reach. Don’t worry about remembering every slip-up you made this past year – by addressing the things you actually can remember, odds are you also will address the things you can’t recall. And just as you would never go to a friend’s house and start cleaning out their chametz, you should use this time to focus on doing your own spring cleaning – that’s already a big enough job as it is.

Don’t forget – to clean a house really well, you have to start by tidying up the place and preparing your supplies. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you only need to spend a few minutes on this spiritual cleaning if you’re going to do a thorough job. This process takes time and preparation. But if you start early enough, it will be easier to identify your biggest obstacles and to figure out how to address them – in that way, you can get the most joy out of the freedom and new beginnings that come with your holiday celebrations. And really, is it ever too soon to start preparing to be happy?

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick