Monday, December 28, 2009

Blog Link: Heeb'n'vegan

Interesting discussion about what it means to live a both vegan and Jewish life and the compromises one must consider.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Miracles and Grieving

Just yesterday I was part of a Chanukah service at a hospital, put on by the Jewish chaplain there. It was the first Chanukah at that hospital, which is a Catholic institution, so that was cool. Part of the service involved a speeches by the chaplains and my Rabbi about the origins and meanings of Chanukah.

The Jewish chaplain talked about miracles. The one she highlighted had nothing to do with oil; the story was about a baby that was life flighted to the hospital, her mother, and the chaplain's experience of the whole situation. She talked about spiritually and emotionally supporting the mother, about praying with the mother (who wasn't Jewish), and the joy of the baby's survival. She explained that she felt the miracle wasn't that the baby survived; it was that the doctors did their best. That their best was enough to save the baby was a bonus.

I thought that was a refreshing take on miracles, and a very interesting insight into how a person deals with death and the grieving as a profession. She talked about how Jewish tradition holds that if you save one life, it's as if you saved the whole world. That's a big miracle and a mitzvah. She talked about how important it is to see the small miracles, like the doctors and nurses and the whole medical staff being focused, working together well, and performing at the top of their games. This is also a mitzvah.

She also said that it's important to be surprised by what you encounter in life. If you are shocked at the violence one person can inflict on another, that means you aren't resigned to it, you haven't accepted it, and you can fight against it. If you are surprised when things go well, you can fully appreciate them. She said that she feels you can never be adjusted to what life throws at you; she happily proclaimed that she is the most maladjusted person in the world. I liked hearing that, because I also find that when I'm complacent for a while, it soon follows that I will be unhappy.

I was also very touched by her stories in a more personal way. My Aunt died of cancer just after Thanksgiving. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile seeing how far medical science has come in treating cancer, but still having it not be enough to save a loved one. Some of the fault is her own, because she didn't seek treatment until the very end, but even feel like there should have been more. Don't get me wrong, she defied doctors' expectations twice.

When she went in for an MRI on the Monday before Thanksgiving, they found that the tumors were in bad places near her stomach and had to do emergency surgery; without it she would almost certainly die, and with it there was a pretty good chance she wouldn't wake up, and if she did they expected her to be uncommunicative. Tuesday was a good day for her, though. Her son is in prison, but somehow managed to get out with a 3rd party custodian to pay her a visit and say the goodbyes and all. Wednesday was a bad day; she was depressed about her situation and her physical condition similarly suffered. The doctors thought that she would pass away in her sleep that night.

When I visited her on Thanksgiving, she was entertaining the whole family with her trademark baudy stories and witty quips. She was also eating turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, which really should have been impossible. Things were similar on Friday, because she was a tough old bird. When I saw her again on Saturday night, she seemed slower. Not as funny, and like she was missing that spark she always had. I got scared that she was going when she started talking about my grandmother, who died 10 years ago. Her breathing was very labored, and she seemed like she was in a lot of pain (this resolved when the nurse refilled her machine). My Aunt passed away at 64 years old the next morning.

Even though it was expected, and probably for the best (you can't have a high-quality life from a hospital bed), it's not easy to deal with during such a family and miracle oriented season. Perspective is everything. I think this is part of the reason why it's a mitzvah to visit the sick; cheering them up is important and valuable, as is caring for them. We also need to see the small miracles that happen around them because death and waiting for a miracle that never came can shake a person's faith, but we need to respect and appreciate life and the miracles that do come.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why all the fuss about Chanukah?

For much of the American and European (Christian) world, the halls are decked, and 'tis the season to be jolly. Twinkly lights, cheesy spangles, and rampant commercialism fills the air. Possibly in an effort to appear more accepting of alternate traditions, advertisements hocking gifts say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", or if they say that dreaded C-word they include Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. I've heard many Jews express the opinion that Chanukah is a minor holiday and all the hooplah is purely a figment of the media's imagination.

I think that Chanukah is underrated in terms of the value Jews place on it. Yes, it's a light "party" holiday with a couple very different legends behind it, such that it's easy to be confused as to what, exactly, you're celebrating. But as my Rabbi pointed out, Chanukah is one of the few religious holidays that has historical evidence supporting the events it commemorates: the Maccabee rebellion happened and they did rededicate the Temple after the Greeks desecrated it. My Rabbi also took it one step further: if it weren't for the Maccabees and their reunification of the Jewish people and rededication of the Temple, world history would be completely different.

For example, it's very unlikely that the Christmas story would have even been possible. Due to the fighting at that time between Syria and Egypt, as well the infighting amongst the Jews who supported Syria versus those who backed up the Egyptians, it would have been difficult for the Jewish community to hold a census some 300 years later in the City of David so Jesus could be born there as the prophesies required. It is more likely that the Joseph and Mary would have assimilated and acted like Hellenists instead of Jews, or at the least, been too involved in war for such an undertaking.

I also think that having a Festival of Lights at this time of year is vital, because I live in a place that doesn't have much daylight now that we're approaching Solstice and it's easy to feel a little down because of it. Really, this is one of the reasons why many religions that originated in the Northern Hemisphere have celebrations in mid to late December. It is believed that Chanukah incorporated aspects of a more ancient Solstice practice, but it is known that European pagans celebrated Yule and Christianity chose to celebrate Christmas at a time to coincide with those celebrations in order to suppress paganism (and/or because they felt they really needed a pick me up as the days got shorter).

From a more religious perspective, Chanukah is very much a holiday that celebrates a value near and dear to most Americans: the right and ability to practice religion in a manner of the individual's choosing. When we light our menorahs, we put them in windows in order to publicize the miracle of the oil. We couldn't do that in times of oppression and we're lighting the candles in order to celebrate and commemorate our victory over an oppressive military regime. The Greeks wanted us to assimilate. We wanted our Temple back, so we fought and won. Supporting the idea that it's not just about Jewish freedom is the fact that our victory allowed Christianity as we know it to exist.

Honing in on the Jewish angle, and touching on what you alluded to, Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates the Jewish identity. We came together. We rebelled. We won. We regained the Temple and we experienced the miracles. This is why we bristle at comparisons to Christmas, which in my opinion, is why we tend to downplay its importance. It is certainly the reason that, despite my interfaith celebrations, I reject the term "Christmukah".

Granted, not all Jews celebrate Chanukah, notably those with roots from Iraq and the Eastern parts of the Greek empire. This definitely supports the idea that Chanukah is a secondary holiday. I would never argue that it's as important as Yom Kippur, but I do believe that it has value.