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A Taste of Torah: Chanukah

It’s getting darker earlier and earlier, which means it’s almost time for Chanukah. Do you struggle to remember just exactly how to light the Menorah? Are you supposed to add candles from the left or right? And which direction do you light the candles? Why do we even light the Chanukah candles? And isn’t it a serious fire hazard to place those burning candles in the window near the drapes?! Take a few minutes to learn the answers to these questions and more in Rabbi Botnick’s latest video.

Embrace the Light

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2021 and reflect on the past year, I can’t help but focus on the challenges of the pandemic and lockdown, as well as the cautious optimism of reopening.

Despite all the pain and suffering we experienced over the past eighteen months, many of us find ourselves still clinging to a general sense of hope and faith. Call it naive if you will, but I believe this outlook is woven into the fabric of the Jewish people.   Throughout history, the Jewish people has witnessed one devastating catastrophe after another. From the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem to the Crusades, from the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms, and finally the Holocaust – each of these events saw mind-numbingly high numbers of casualties and a threat to the Jewish future.

Yet despite the pain and sorrow resulting from these events, the Jewish people held onto their faith and maintained hope in a better future. And no holiday embodies this sense of hope and optimism more than Chanukah.   The Talmud records a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over the proper way to light the Chanukah menorah: Beit Shammai says we should start with eight candles and remove one each day; Beit Hillel says we should start with one candle and add one more each day. As is almost always the case, Beit Hillel wins the argument, but their reasoning here is uniquely beautiful and powerful: Ma’alin BaKodesh VeEin Moridin – we only increase holiness, we never diminish it.   Another way to look at Beit Hillel’s ruling is to say that at the darkest time of the year, we light more and more candles in order to drive out the darkness of pain and suffering with the light of hope and optimism.  

Last year, we were not able to hold our annual Chanukah Bazaar due to the pandemic, but this year, we are cautiously reopening our doors. While I would understand if not all of you are ready to re-join us in person quite yet, the fact that we are allowing ourselves to return to some sense of normality shows that we are embracing the lesson of Chanukah and the story of the Jewish people: there may be times when we must hide in the dark, but a time will always come when we must embrace the light and help it grow.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

Connection, reconnection and disconnection

Despite the challenges and traumas of the past 18 months, one can’t help but marvel at all we’ve accomplished, thanks to technology. We have FaceTime and Zoom for ‘visiting’ family and friends or ‘attending’ classes and services. We have Netflix, Spotify and Libby to enjoy TV, film, music and books. Podcasts and blogs make it simple to learn from people all over the world. And yet, our connectedness is both a blessing and a curse.

It is a blessing that my daughter can FaceTime with her grandparents and great-grandparents across the ocean. It is a blessing that my colleagues and I can correspond on WhatsApp, despite living on multiple continents. It is a blessing that we can learn with just a few taps of a screen.

But it is also a curse to be so dependent on technology to feel connected. We are drawn constantly towards our devices with each bleep – tearing us away from the present moment and turning our attention towards something happening elsewhere. With a 24/7 news cycle, it feels as if we are incapable of going even an hour without checking our screens. The greatest irony is that this connectedness has led to an increased sense of isolation from those around us. Not only that, but we also spend less time connecting with our own selves, as the gratification provided by our devices is far more immediate than the difficult work of introspection.

So how do we solve this dilemma?

The first step is to disconnect from technology. In recent years, a group called ReBoot has been promoting what they call a National Day of Unplugging, running from sundown to sundown, on the first Friday in March. In other words, it’s Shabbat. The fact is, every week, Shabbat offers us the opportunity to unplug and disconnect from technology without guilt. Family and friends are less likely to begrudge you for not answering their texts right away when you tell them you were following Jewish tradition. Better yet, the family and friends with whom you spend Shabbat will enjoy your physical and emotional presence that much more.

But if the idea of disconnecting every week feels a bit daunting, why not start with something easier? Try disconnecting from technology for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sadly, due to the restrictions of social distancing, we still need to rely on technology to ‘attend’ services this year. But I want to encourage you to try shutting down your device the moment services end. Use the time to connect with the world around you – take a walk on the Heath, meditate in
your garden or engage a loved one in meaningful conversation. If you’re able to attend services in person this year, seize the opportunity to check in with those you care about – those you haven’t been able to see this past year – by moving past superficial greetings and asking how they’re doing in a respectful and meaningful way.

Finally, after you’ve disconnected from technology and reconnected with old friends, you can take on the most important (and challenging) task: connecting with yourself. This is actually what the High Holydays are about. The word that best describes this time of year is ‘Teshuvah’, which literally means ‘return’. Most commonly, this return refers to a reconnection with God. And as the way to God comes from within, the first step of Teshuvah is listening to and connecting with ourselves.

This is the holy work we must take on during the holidays. By disconnecting from the noise in our lives, we attain a silence and stillness that sets the stage for our work. By reconnecting with those we love, we establish for ourselves a loving and supportive environment in which to work. And finally, we engage in the holy work itself by connecting with the deepest parts of our souls, through the framework of our tradition. In this sense, the Machzor (prayer book) serves as a guidebook. One should not feel obligated to follow every page, prayer or even word at the frantic pace of the communal service. Rather, take your time and meditate on these ancient words at your own pace. Use the poetry of our liturgy as a mirror to gaze upon yourself – searching within for any Divine attributes you recognise or wish were there.

Every year, we enter the High Holy Days with the intention of finding these connections – with others, with ourselves, with the Divine. This year, as we strive to move beyond the curses of our technological connectedness, the call of this holy work seems all the more important.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

The Unexpected Joy of Re-opening

Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa, from Kfar Hananya, said “When ten people sit together, immersed in Torah, the Divine presence is steeped in their midst, as it says in Psalms (82:1), ‘God stands in the assembly of God.’” Pirkei Avot 3:6

A few weeks ago, we made the decision to begin taking the Torah out of the ark again. For the first time in about fifteen months, I stood in awe as we began the Torah service and opened the ark, revealing the brilliance of lighting reflecting off the freshly polished and repaired Torah adornments. As a rabbi, I’ve held a Torah on my own at various points this past year. But standing in the community, honouring the Torah as part of a Shabbat service, was incredibly moving – my eyes welled up on account of this religious beauty, which we have missed for far too long. All these emotions were compounded by hearing the weekly Parsha read not out of a Chumash, but from the Torah itself.

We’ve now been taking out and reading from the Torah for several weeks, and it’s just as beautiful as it was that first time. Each week, I know that for so many people present at the service, it is in fact their first time seeing the Torah since before the pandemic struck. Of course, I wish more of you could have this experience right away, but we are still limited in service attendance due to lockdown measures. That being said, it will be that much more welcome when we do reopen fully, come 19 July.

Virtually all of my colleagues have been discussing lately what they think synagogue life will look like after the pandemic restrictions lift. Many worry that their congregants have become used to praying at home, and therefore will have less of a reason to return to in-person services. I can’t help but think they are mistaken. Yes, many people attend services in person for the prayer experience itself, but I believe most of us come to synagogue to be moved (emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually) and to connect (with others, ourselves, and the Divine). You can certainly have some of these needs met online or at home, but the most important needs – being moved spiritually and connecting to others – simply can’t be replicated elsewhere in the same way.

For a couple of months now, we’ve been able to gather with friends in our gardens, at a park, or elsewhere outdoors, but there’s a difference between seeing a few select people and seeing your larger community. There are plenty of people we may not think to call or visit on our own, but we are quite glad when we have a chance to see them at synagogue and hear what has been happening with them. Such encounters remind us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, our families, and our circle of friends: we are part of a loving and supportive community. And it’s the sense of belonging which has been at the heart of the Belsize experience since our community’s founding.

I want to invite you to join us for services in person as soon as you are able and feel comfortable doing so. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you’ve missed the experience of celebrating our heritage with others. And when you find yourself feeling moved by the experience, I want you to try to hold on to the feeling – as we should never take such everyday blessings for granted again.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick