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Hanukkah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 12/19/03

December 20, 2003

Historically, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the ancient Hasmonean family, known as the "Maccabees" over forces of assimilation and religious persecution. In retaking Jerusalem in the year 164 b.c.e. (before the common era), the Maccabees set about rededicating the ancient Temple to its rightful purpose. The word for "dedication" in Hebrew is "Hanukkah."

Today (and for the past 2,000 years) we celebrate this occasion by lighting an eight-branched "Hanukiyah" (menorah), starting with one candle and adding an additional one each night for eight days. I encourage you to read up on the full history of this event (or come to the Houston Free Minyan tomorrow morning) to better understand the context of our celebration.

I would guess that most Jews are unfamiliar with the details of Hanukkah, but still celebrate it with greater vigor than any of the other Jewish holidays. 75% of all Jews (affiliated, unaffiliated, and/or disaffiliated) light candles in their homes on Hanukkah. In the scope of Jewish worship, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday. In fact, it is the first Jewish celebration that was not mandated by the Torah. It is hard to call an occasion that touches 75% of Jewish lives "minor!" Why is it that so many choose to celebrate Hanukkah?

The famous Jewish sociologist Marshall Sklar suggested there are 4 ingredients necessary for making a Jewish celebration one that is shared by the majority of Jews: 1) It must come at a time when the majority culture has a similar celebration, 2) it must involve children, 3) it must be simple to do, and 4) it must be able to be done in the home. Though there is no historical or religious similarity between Hanukkah and Christmas, they both are celebrated in the winter, they both bring families together, and they both involve the sharing of gifts (something we have allowed to get out of hand!). Most Jews view Hanukkah as a wonderful celebration for children. To celebrate Hanukkah, all one needs to do is light a menorah and recite some familiar blessings that are usually available in transliteration on the side of a Hanukkah candle box. Hanukkah is an almost entirely "home-based" celebration.

Today, I am of the opinion that Hanukkah IS the most important Jewish celebration of the year; not because so many people do it, but because so many Jews still feel a connection regardless of their perceived distance from Jewish life. We should "celebrate" this connectiveness. We should appreciate Hanukkah for what it is; the celebration of "Rededication." No longer do we have the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today our homes are our Temples, and we are the priests. Hanukkah is another chance to reconnect and rededicate the "Temples" in our lives.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Purim Torah 5764 (2004) posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/05/04

The celebration of Purim takes place this Saturday evening and Sunday. It is probably best summed up as the Jewish Halloween WITHOUT the ghosts & goblins. In their place we have the Book of Esther. The book reflects the craziness of this holiday. The story combines sex (check out the so-called beauty contest that Esther wins), violence (the Jews turn the table on the evil anti-Semites), heroes (Mordechai & Esther), and an arch-villain (Haman). The story is such a hit, each year we celebrate it by dressing up and, in some cases, dramatizing the events. The Purim story was the precursor to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (when viewing the film, the audience dresses up like their favorite cast member). Nu, this is Purim!

Also associated with Purim is "Purim Torah." Purim Torah is a good joke, humorous story, or clever anecdote. In keeping with this tradition, let me share some PURIM TORAH with you this week. I had a Psychology professor who taught, "if you take life more than half-seriously, you will go insane!" This is the message of Purim. . . now the story:

"In the early 1970s, Brezhnev announces to the Politburo that he is making a state visit to Poland, and that in honor of the trip he wishes to bring the Polish people a momentous gift. It is decided that Brezhnev should bring a large painting entitled, "LENIN IN POLAND." After all, what could be a more meaningful expression of Soviet-Polish solidarity than a portrait of Lenin, the god of Soviet communism, visiting Poland?

Unfortunately, Lenin never visited Poland, and the "great masters" of the Artists Union, their minds constricted by socialist realism, can come up with no ideas how to depict Lenin in Poland.

Time is running short, and the Soviet leadership is growing desperate. Finally it is decided to approach Rabinowitz, a Jewish dissident artist. "We know you have voiced many complaints against your country," a visiting KGB delegation tells him. "But if you perform this service for the motherland, we promise you a large apartment and a lot of work."

Rabinowitz agrees to make the painting of Lenin in Poland. Three weeks later, the day before the trip, Brezhnev leads a delegation of Politburo members into a conference room. There stands Rabinowitz in front of a large canvas covered by a drop cloth. "Let us see the painting," Brezhnev orders.

Rabinowitz removes the covering, and everybody in the room gasps. The painting shows a man in bed with a woman.

"Who is that man?" someone shouts at Rabinowitz.

"That's Trotsky."

Another gasp.

"And who is the woman?" another Politburo member yells out.

"Krupskaya, Lenin's wife."

"And where is Lenin?" Brezhnev thunders.

"Lenin's in Poland."


Rabbi Howard Siegel

A View From The Fence posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/14/04

Today we visited a portion of the new security fence being constructed between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians. In the absence of a honest peace effort, the Sharon government has vowed to make a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. That is, by constructing a wall between Gaza and Israel and portions of the West Bank, Israel will define the terms and borders for any new Palestinian state.

Is this right? One of the speakers I listened to said, "Consider the options. We could keep the West Bank and Gaza and maintain rule of a few million Palestinians. In doing so, we severly undercut our economy and do nothing to ease the present situation with the Palestinians. This solution is untenable. We could give up the territories in the interest of peace with a peace partner whose soul intention is the destruction of any Zionist presence. This solution is untenable. The only practical solution is for Israel to unilaterally withdraw settlements from territorities and, by means of a security fence, define the new borders."

The crisis in Israel is real. Both sides-Israeli & Palestinian-can be blamed for Human rights violations. But there is hardly a moral equivalency between a suicide bomber who intentionally targets civilian populations and the Israeli army who carefully targets terrorists, even when there is unintentional collateral damage. Both are regretable, but one is hardly the same as the other.

This morning I listened to Dr. Michael Oren, author of "Six Days of War: June 1967." Dr. Oren drew an interesting comparison. Two years ago, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in an operation in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. 23 Israeli soldiers is, per capita, equivalent to the loss of several thousand American soldiers. If 2,000 American soldiers were killed in an operation in Baghdad because the military did not want to indiscriminatly bomb there would certainly have been an outcry among Americans as to why the air operation was not carried out. Nothing was send by citiizens, nor printed in Israeli newspapers, critizing how the opeation was carried out even when 23 soldiers were lost. Why? Dr. Oren believes that at the end of the day, the majority of Israelis believe this is a Jewish state and Jews don't indiscriminately kill.

The easy way to deal with a terrorist entity sworn not just to the creation of a Palestinian state, but the destruction of Israel, is to bring to bear the full power and might of the military. There is NO WAY the majority of Israel's citizens would stand for such a solution. At the end of the day, Israel-with all her problems-is a Jewish state and morality has both a vote and veto in regards to the treatment of our enemy.

Enough said. The sun is beginning to set in Jerusalem. This is not a time of fear but hope. I am not in Israel out of desperation, but in celebration. In the years ahead, I hope many of you will be able to join with me in this celebration. "Am Yisrael Chai"-the People Israel, the Land Israel, lives!

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Abraham Joshua Heschel posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/18/04

Remembering A Great Man

     Last week we commemorated the anniversary of the death (Yahrzeit) of the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Though he died the year I entered rabbinical school, I was privileged to have heard him lecture on a few occasions.  His life and works have contributed greatly to making this a better world for all people.  In the 60's, he marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.  When asked what he was doing, he responded, "I am praying with my feet!"

     Abraham Joshua Heschel died of a sudden heart attack in 1972.  Jacob Teshima, from Japan, was his last doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  Mr. Teshima shares the following remembrance on the occasion of Professor Heschel's Yahrzeit:

     "Every evening when Professor Heschel returned home from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I carried his bag from Broadway & 122nd to his home on Riverside Drive at the corner of 115th Street.

     One particular cold November day on the way back from the Seminary, I dared put my question to him, and asked, "Why did you not become the Rebbi (Great Leader) of the Kopiczinicz Hasidim who once urged you to succeed their present spiritual leader?  I heard your cousin from Brooklyn, then the Kopicziniczer Rebbe, several times urged you to succeed him."

     Hearing my bold question, my teacher, Abraham Heschel, stopped his walk a moment, took a deep breath and thought for a while.  He said, "Listen, Jacob, there is a story in the Midrash (Jewish Legend).  When Moses saw the burning bush at Sinai, he saw also the Divine palace of God burning in a blaze.  He wondered why no one was concerning themselves with the fire.  He volunteered to extinguish it.  Then God appeared to him saying, "Moses, Moses, the palace is under MY charge.  I do take responsibility and care for it.  I would, though, be most pleased if you could help me care for my other palace, which is nothing other than the world where you live."  So, Moses became the faithful partner of God. 

     Professor Heschel continued, "This story gave me a lesson when my cousin invited me to succeed him.  I thought that there were many other people who could take the leadership of the Kopicziniczer Hasidim because they have been brought up under the Divine care to be gifted, pious, and holy.  But who should take care of the world?  They are too busy in keeping their own holy life, and that of their Hasidim, to share the holiness with the world."

     "As you know, Jacob, Judaism has a lot of precious values and meanings, such treasures that the rest of the world does not even know exist.  I thought that if I did not introduce them to the other people, those things should be kept unknown forever.  So I decided to leave the care of the Kopicziniczers to the hand of someone else.  It is my duty to care for the world outside of the Sanctuary.  It is the duty of a person who has experienced holiness to redeem the world through the act.  He should not keep it to himself, but share it with people."

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Passover 5764/2002 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 04/02/04

Passover 5764/2004

"The Exodus From Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year and even in every day."

-Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (Ukraine, 19th Century)

When I left congregational work to pursue the work of the JIC, I came to appreciate the meaning of Passover. I left my personal Egypt, which was financially comfortable and secure, for an unknown. One of the first questions I am asked is, "Are you making a living?" Slavery is about "making a living," and nothing more. Freedom is about "living."

Noam Zion writes in "A Different Night" Haggadah, "We see ourselves in the mirror of the story of the redemption from slavery in Egypt. Each of us journeys to our own Egypt, as a way to respond to a threat or to address a need. We identify how we may be trapped and enslaved in our lives so to begin our own process of liberation. As we grow and develop, our needs change. We find ourselves constricted in some way. Initially, we may fail to notice that a problem exists. We may not be aware of other possibilities; we may deaden ourselves to our dissatisfaction; we may not understand the true cause of difficulties we do experience; or, we may be afraid that change is not possible."

It was not when they were told they would be leaving Egypt that the ancient Israelites celebrated. It was when they crossed the Red Sea and were truly free. What keeps many from taking hold of the unhappiness in their lives and risking change is the fear of jumping through the proverbial "hoop of fire." The worst part is thinking about making the leap. Once you are through it, you are a new person.

As Rabbi Nachman profoundly noted, we all have our personal Egypts within us. Passover is a time to sit with friends and family, and dare to speak of the notion of being slaves in our own day; slaves to jobs, money, expectations, etc. What, if anything, can we do about it? How, in our day, can we go from the "slavery of Egypt," to the "freedom of Jerusalem?" Passover reminds us that living, by definition, involves risk-taking. Are we willing to risk a comfort and security that has never produced the kind of lives we want for a chance to begin, again?

Our task on Passover is to make the opening and closing statements of the Haggadah a personal challenge for the coming year. We begin by saying, "This year we are slaves, next year may we be free," and we conclude by recognizing the Jewish symbol of hope and freedom, "Next year in Jerusalem."

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Memorial Day 2004 posted by Rabbi Siegel on 05/28/04

Memorial Day 2004
May 28, 2004

Try to Remember the kind of September
when life was slow and oh, so mellow

Try to Remember when life was so tender
that no one wept except the willow

Try to Remember and if you Remember
then follow, follow, follow

-from the Broadway play, The Fantastiks

Memorial Day is about remembering, not just those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom but the ideals we believe they died for. Unfortunately, as hard as we try to remember, too soon we forget.

Since World War II, Americans have given their lives in Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and twice in Iraq. What did we learn in Korea that got us into Viet Nam? What were the bitter lessons of Viet Nam that guided us in the present war with Iraq? We forgot them. In the words of Pete Seeger's immortal folk song, "When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

Wars are not fought by leaders or governments but by young, impressionable youth filled with the opium of ideals and belief in their own immortality. You don't see 40-year old men or women strapping on suicide bomber belts or flying aircraft into buildings. They know better. They understand they are mortal beings. As they age, they gain greater appreciation for life. Unfortunately, their appreciation extends only to themselves. They are quite willing to allow youth to do their nasty bidding.

In a democracy, it is not just the leaders who bear the responsibility for preserving and protecting our values and ideals; the responsibility for knowing when to make war and when to risk peace. We, the People, bear the responsibility. We elect those who lead. Memorial Day is a day to remember what this country is about and pause to measure our collective national image against the backdrop of lofty ideals on which this country was founded. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (Declaration of Independence).

Memorial Day is a time to remember when life was so tender that no one wept except the willow. It can be that way again if we remember, and follow!

Rabbi Howard Siegel