Chanukah – Light the Flames of Hope, Freedom and Life

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light – the light of justice, the light of peace, the light of freedom – to those who live in darkness.

Tonight we celebrate the fourth night of Chanukah. This holiday was declared by Judah Maccabee (approximately 164 BCE) after the Jewish minority were victorious over the Greeks who had taken over the land of Israel and had imposed harsh restrictions on Jewish practice and observance.

The victory celebrates religious freedom, the freedom to live life on our own terms, without being subject to the harshness of life under duress.

For most, we were born into a life of freedom. Some members of our community however, truly know how precious this gift is: having emigrated to the Greater Boston Area from the then Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union or other Soviet bloc countries. They experienced first-hand the notion of “pidyon shvoo’im” – redeeming the captive, and they know what it means to truly celebrate a chanukat habayit – the dedication of their own home, where they can live freely as they choose, without fear, without censorship, with all the rights and responsibilities that freedom entails. This is what Chanukah is all about: the ability to live freely as one chooses, to celebrate religion as a free people. Freedom means having clothes to wear, food to eat, a bed in which to sleep, a welcoming and safe place to call “home.”

However, despite the fact that we have many freedoms, we are still living in dark times. We know all too well that there are many people for whom oppression and exile, war and famine have become the “norm.” Hatred and violence rage on. Injustices prevail.

The Jewish community here in MetroWest (the communities in the western suburbs of Boston) has opened our arms and hearts to those who suffer. We light our candles on Chanukah as a beacon of light and hope to all.

Last Friday evening, one of the Kurdish Syrian Refugee families whom we are sponsoring, the Hamzas, were part of our Shabbat evening service at the Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism conference in Boston. The Hamzas came to MetroWest after fleeing from war-torn Syria in 2014.

The Hamza Family and the Prayer Migzin Wrote

Mizgin Hamza, the mother, wrote the most beautiful prayer, which she read in Arabic with one of her daughters reading with her antiphonally, in English. This family, this beautiful prayer, inspired and moved all 6500 Reform Jews who gathered from North America, Israel and other parts of the world at the Reform Movements as we prepared to sing: “Mi Chamocha” – our Jewish prayer which we recite twice daily reminding us of our own liberation from bondage in Egypt. On this 5th night of Chanukah, I share Mizgin’s prayer with you now:

O God, Ruler of Rulers, who renders decisions and is capable of all,

I stand before You on this blessed Friday night to say a prayer for all our friends in this room

To fill their paths with light

To protect them from evil

To protect them from all danger.

O angels on high,

I ask you to come to this world and make it beautiful

And to extinguish its fires

And to open the doors of goodness and blessing and to bestow on them your mercy, oh God.

We are lacking and You are perfect, O God.

O God, You are the Knower of all.

O God, You are the way, now and always,

O God, please heed my prayer.

Let Mizgin’s prayer remind us that no matter what our religion, we are all God’s children, we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” The lessons of our past and the lessons of the Torah remind us that it is not just our own who are created b’tzelem Elohim, it is every single human being. The lights of Chanukah teach us, that if we kindle one spark, that spark can ignite multiple flames and create a roaring fire that will light up even the darkest night – that is, if we save one life, it is as if we have saved an entire world.

The lights of Chanukah will burn more brightly when we do something to bring light to those who live in darkness.

The lights of Chanukah will cast a warmer glow, when we try to find an end to war and injustice, oppression and exile, racism, hunger and pain.

So as we watch our candles burn and glow this Chanukah, this Festival of Lights , let us make a promise to keep the flame alive: as a promise of hope, a promise of freedom, a promise of life.






Passover: Liberty and Freedom are the Inalienable Rights of Every Human Being

On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

We retell the story of the Exodus each year to remind ourselves that the gift of freedom comes with great responsibility: the responsibility to take care of others. Our freedom means we have the responsibility to work to free those who are still bound by the shackles of poverty, war, famine, hatred, racism…whatever issues are still plaguing our world.

 “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” (Morris Joseph)

 During my 26 years in the rabbinate, I have been blessed with many different seder experiences that exemplify this notion of “liberty” and “freedom”. Not long after Glasnost and Perestroika, I went to the Former Soviet Union for two years with congregants during Pesach. We brought in much needed medical supplies, taught about Pesach and led Pesach seders in Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and Mogilev (all in Belarus). After the first seder, one woman approached us with tears streaming down her face, “I am 40 years old and this is my first Pesach seder. Thank you!” Up until then, the Jewish community had not been allowed to celebrate, and there was no one who knew the rituals.

This year, on the eve of the first seder, I led a seder at an Assisted Living facility at noon for about 30 Jewish residents, their families and some of their non-Jewish residents who wanted to learn more about our holiday.

I met George, who moved into the facility two months ago. George is a Holocaust survivor, the only member of his family to be liberated from Auschwitz. He showed me his number tattooed on his forearm and briefly shared with me his story of captivity, liberation and survival.

He came to live in the Assisted Living facility two months ago because he outlived all his friends and was no longer able to get out and about. He stayed home by himself all day and all night. His children worried about him. He was isolated, lonely and depressed. So his children wanted to find a place for him where he would be safe, where he would be surrounded by other people and where he would find stimulation and activity.

Since moving into the facility, he feels a new sense of “liberation”. He told me he loves living there. He has made friends. He has a new lease on life, he has activities to keep him busy every day, people with whom to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves playing cards and bingo. He was smiling from ear-to-ear.

Sometimes LIBERATION and FREEDOM are “big concepts” – how to save the world from a nuclear Iran, how to stop human trafficking, how to end poverty and war.

But what I saw this afternoon, was that “liberation” and “freedom” are concepts that affect each and every one of us personally. George was enslaved in the shackles of loneliness and isolation. He had almost given up on life. After the Holocaust, he experienced LIBERATION and FREEDOM and was able to build a beautiful life in the United States.

And now, once again, he is experiencing a different kind of “liberation” and “freedom” – a personal sense of “joie de vivre” that enables him to live each day to its fullest with meaning and purpose. He told me that Pesach this year was particularly meaningful to him and he was so glad to celebrate it with his new friends.

 This Pesach, our “Festival of Freedom,” I hope we all can do our part to make “liberation” and “freedom” lasting realities, both on the larger scale world-wide and personally, for our friends and family.

I wish you and all your loved ones a sweet, wonderful and meaningful holiday. Next year, may we all celebrate in peace, liberty and freedom.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Pesach!

“Let All Who Are Hungry, Come and Eat…”

When I was growing up, you could buy two kinds of matzah in the store: plain or egg.

Today, the grocery store shelves are overflowing with a plethora of varieties of matzah :

Plain, egg, onion, spelt, oat, gluten-free, tea matzah, whole wheat, whole wheat and bran, matzah “sticks”, English matzah, Israeli matzah, chocolate covered matzah, small size matzah crackers (and all of the varieties exist in the crackers as well).

Some of the different varieties of matzah available today
Some of the different varieties of matzah available today

It can seem overwhelming looking at all the different types of matzah lining the shelves at the grocery store.

And don’t forget about buying matzah meal, cake meal and matzah farfel. They also come in “original”, whole grain and now gluten free. Want some matzah Panko crumbs? Plain or flavoured? Regular or gluten-free? They are all readily available.

Matzah has come a long way from its biblical and historical origins.

Matzah was originally the “bread of affliction”. In Exodus 12:8, the ancient Israelites ate unleavened bread as they hastily departed Egypt on their way to freedom. They had no time to bake bread and let it rise, so they quickly mixed some flour and water and made flat bread. A type of bread which would bake quickly and not spoil as they travelled.

Ha lachma anya

Di achalu avatanya b’arah

d’Mitzrayim… (Passover Haggada)

“This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.”

With these ancient Aramaic words, we break one of the symbolic pieces of matzah on the Seder table and our Pesach (Passover) seder becomes an evening of community, story-telling and hospitality.

By breaking a piece of matzah in half and opening our front door, we invite all those who have no where to celebrate and join us at our Seder tables. We invite all those who are hungry, to celebrate Passover along side our own families.

Thus matzah comes to symbolize two things:

  • the affliction and suffering our ancestors suffered as slaves in Egypt;
  • freedom, hospitality and welcoming. Matzah was eaten by people on the cusp of becoming free. We now use it to welcome others to our homes during this special time.

The dual nature of matzah is not lost on us. Matzah is hard and crumbly. It can get stuck in our throats. Yet, we have the ability to transform it into something edible and delicious. (Ever had caramel matzah crunch, aka, matzah “crack?”, or a delicious blueberry matzah brei for breakfast, or just plain matzah with fresh butter and strawberry preserves?)

We find that when we gather together with friends, family and community and share food and celebration, the bonds we form can help lighten any burden we bear. When we gather together as community, we can find a way to alleviate the suffering of others. There is power, strength and healing in community. Matzah thus reminds us of the dual nature of life: slavery and freedom, hunger and hospitality.

Matzah is made from only two ingredients: flour and water. It mixes together and bakes up quickly. And it lasts a long time without going bad. It is a simple food. Not complicated.

It should be a simple thing for us to reach out to others in friendship and love, to open our doors, our homes and our hearts. It should be easy and not complicated – like matzah.

So as you do your Pesach shopping this year, and contemplate which type of matzah you will bring home, think about how to make the ancient words of “Ha lach ma anya” come alive by opening your home and your heart to others this Pesach.

Chag Pesach Sameach! A happy and healthy Passover to you and your family!

Click on the links below for some of my favourite Passover recipes:

Sharon’s Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts

Susie Fishbein’s Tri-Color Matzah Balls

Betsy Stone’s Carrot Kugel/Carrot Muffins

Sue Devor’s Decadent Flourless Chocolate Torte

Grain-Free/Gluten-Free Blondies


Sing a Song of Freedom

This week and next we commemorate the values of freedom, justice and liberty.

B’shalach, our Torah reading for this week, celebrates the new-found freedom of the Israelites as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 15 we read the beautiful Song at the Sea, the poem of praise, thanksgiving and victory which the Israelites sang upon their safe deliverance. “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal. They said:


I will sing to the Eternal, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The Eternal is my strength and might;

He is become my deliverance.

This is my God and I will enshrine Him.

The God of my ancestors, and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15: 1-2)

We remind ourselves every day, twice a day, that we used to be slaves when we recite the “Mi Chamocha” prayer in our daily morning service and evening service. “Mi Chamocha” is actually not a prayer or blessing. The verses are actually taken from this week’s Torah reading: Exodus 15:11 and 15: 18:

“Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

Awesome in splendor, working wonders!… The Eternal will reign for ever and ever.”

Why do we need to remind ourselves constantly of our servitude?

Both the Torah itself and the later rabbis instill within us the value of historical memory:

In every generation, one is obligated to see one’s self as having personally left Egypt. As it is said: (Exodus 13:8), ‘And you will tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5)

By reciting Mi Chamocah twice daily, we are reminding ourselves of a few things: 1) we are connected to God in a relationship that is historic; 2) God redeemed us from slavery; and 3) if we needed assistance to be liberated from bondage, then we are obligated to help those who are not yet free as well. Mi Chamocha then is our call to action.

Modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel took this obligation very seriously. In one of his important works, he wrote:

“Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that “I can act as I desire.” This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction. The will is not an ultimate and isolated entity, but determined by motives beyond its own control. To be what one wants to be is also not freedom, since the wishes of the ego are largely determined by external factors…Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice. Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966)

Heschel was not just a man of thought, a man of words, but a man of deed. In 1965, he marched in the famous march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was his friend and close colleague. “When I marched in Selma, it felt like my legs were praying,” Heschel commented after the march.

Susannah Heschel, AJ Heschel’s daughter, explained this further:

“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.” (Susannah Heschel, “Following in my father’s footsteps: Selma 40 years later”)

The photo below shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the far right, participating in the Selma march. On his left is Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a former Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple (where I began my rabbinate) and long-standing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1943-1972). Both Heschel and Eisendrath worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. fighting against racism, bigotry, hatred and intolerance. They all fought for civil rights and justice.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.

Therefore, it is not so ironic that we as a Jewish people are celebrating our own historical liberation from bondage, just one week before we, as a nation, observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).

Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what we learn from our own Jewish tradition:

“In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)

as well as,

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We will do justice to our Torah portion this week, B’shalach, and to the memories of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and to all who work to free the captives, when we work to fulfill the following words:

Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.” (Gates of Prayer, page 618. Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1975).