Bob Schwartz

Tag: Holidays

The Hanukkah Guest, Told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Artist: Xul Solar (1887-1963)

Hanukkah begins on the evening of Sunday, December 2, and continues for eight nights and days. One candle is lit on the first night, with a candle added each night. Light increases.

Every story has something hidden. What is concealed is the hidden light.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810)

The Hanukkah Guest

On the first night of Hanukkah, a poor man, who lived alone, chanted the Hanukkah blessings and lit the Hanukkah candle. He gazed at the candle for a long moment, and then there was a knock at the door. When he opened it, he saw a stranger standing there, and he invited him in. They began to discuss things, as people do, and the guest asked the man how he supported himself. The man explained that he spent his days studying Torah, and that he was supported by others, and didn’t have an income of his own. After a while, their talk became more intimate, and the man told the guest that he was striving to reach a higher level of holiness. The guest suggested that they study Torah together. And when the man discovered how profound were the guest’s insights, he started to wonder if he were a human being or an angel. He began to address the guest as Rabbi.

Time flew by, and the man felt as if he had learned more in that one night than in all the other years he had studied. All at once the guest said that he had to leave, and the man asked him how far he should accompany him. The guest replied, “Past the door.” So the man followed the guest out the door, and the guest embraced him, as if to say goodbye, but then he began to fly, with the man clinging to him. The man was shivering, and when the guest saw this, he gave him a garment that not only warmed him, but, as soon as he put it on, he found himself back in his house, seated at the table, enjoying a fine meal. At the same time, he saw that he was flying.

The guest brought him to a valley between two mountains. There he found a book with illustrations of vessels, and inside the vessels there were letters. And the man understood that with those letters it was possible to create new vessels. The man was taken with a powerful desire to study that book. But when he looked up for an instant, he found himself back in his house. Then, when he turned back to the book, he found himself in the valley once more. The guest, whoever he was, was gone. The man, feeling confident, decided to climb up the mountain. When he reached the summit, he saw a golden tree with golden branches. From the branches hung vessels like those illustrated in the book. The man wanted to pick one of those vessels, as one picks fruit from a tree, but as soon as he reached for one, he found himself back in his house, and there was a knock at the door. He opened the door and saw it was the mysterious guest, and he pleaded with him to come in. The guest replied, “I don’t have time, for I am on my way to you.” The man was perplexed, and asked the guest to explain what he meant. The guest said, “When you agreed to accompany me beyond the door, I gave your neshamah, your highest earthly soul, a garment from Paradise. Now, when you bring your thoughts to Paradise, you are there, on that holy mountain. But when your thoughts return to this world, you will find yourself here once again.” And that is how it remained for the rest of that man’s life, and the story has still not come to an end.

A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz

Black Friday: The American Holiday Exclusively Devoted to Buying Things

Note: #GivingTuesday is next week.

Many holidays have been commercialized. But almost all of them struggle to maintain some semblance of their higher purpose and original meaning. Thanksgiving is still about diverse and somewhat antagonistic neighbors and strangers peacefully getting together for a big meal. Christmas is still about the arrival of someone who brings goodness and light to the world. The same abiding of meaning goes for Founding Fathers (July 4th) and mothers (Mother’s Day)

Black Friday is different. It is exclusively about commerce. The dark name signifies the start of the shopping season that determines whether retailers have a profitable year (be “in the black”). You can look behind the commercial for the true meaning of other holidays. The only thing behind Black Friday is buying. The only way to celebrate Black Friday is to buy things—hopefully at deep discounts.

Some will say this misses the point. Buying on Black Friday is only the preliminary step to gifting on Christmas. Buying cheaper means being able to buy more gifts for more people. That’s what the spirit of Christmas is really about.

Here is a thought for those who participated in Black Friday, in stores or, as is now common, online. Add up all the money you saved by getting Black Firday deals. Donate that amount to the charity of your choice. (Given that Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, food banks are one suggestion).

Next Tuesday is #GivingTuesday, a holiday more attuned to the spirit of the season. Americans are expected to spend $90 billion shopping on Black Friday and on the newer holiday of Cyber Monday. If you conservatively guess that shoppers saved just 10% on their purchases, that adds up to savings of $10 billion for those shoppers. So if Black Friday shoppers donated their $10 billion in savings on #GivingTuesday, the meaning of Black Friday would be radically transformed

Thinksgiving

Dhammapada. One of the most popular and best-loved Buddhist texts. It consists of 423 verses divided into 26 sections arranged according to subject matter. In practice it is a sort of anthology of verses from various books of the canon.
A Dictionary of Buddhism

3. MIND

As the fletcher whittles
And makes straight his arrows,
So the master directs
His straying thoughts.

Like a fish out of water,
Stranded on the shore,
Thoughts thrash and quiver.
For how can they shake off desire?

They tremble, they are unsteady,
They wander at their will.
It is good to control them,
And to master them brings happiness.

But how subtle they are,
How elusive!
The task is to quieten them,
And by ruling them to find happiness.

With single-mindedness
The master quells his thoughts.
He ends their wandering.
Seated in the cave of the heart,
He finds freedom.

How can a troubled mind
Understand the way?
If a man is disturbed
He will never be filled with knowledge.

An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.

Know that the body is a fragile jar,
And make a castle of your mind.
In every trial
Let understanding fight for you
To defend what you have won.

For soon the body is discarded.
Then what does it feel?
A useless log of wood, it lies on the ground.
Then what does it know?

Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.
But once mastered,
No one can help you as much,
Not even your father or your mother.

The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha
A Rendering by Thomas Byrom

Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Abraham Joshua Heschel on Repentance

In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried: “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.” (Avot 4:22)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

Jews begat
Christians begat
Muslims.
Thousands became
Millions became billions.
Blessed and blind warriors
Pages of holy books
Edged in gold
Sharp as swords.
Angry and bitter blood transmutes
To sweet water in the scorching desert
Of seeking souls.

©

Note: We are in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, commemorating the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. It is sad astonishment to students of all three Abrahamic faiths to see how zealously ignorant and contentious some of the faithful of each may be to each other. (Jews who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the New Testament; Jews and Christians who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the Qur’an.)

In fact, each faith has produced extraordinary core texts that should be the first stop for anyone claiming to know anything—not only about the other, but about their own traditions. The golden threads of Judaism are woven into Christianity, the golden threads of Judaism and Christianity are woven into Islam. The ugliness and terror are man-made; the best parts are from the compassionate and caring.

L’dor vador. From generation to generation. One family.

Mother’s Day: BE NICE

Melania Trump calls her new social initiative as First Lady “Be Best.” It has been somewhat ridiculed for being well-intentioned but too vague and generalized, having something to do with children not using opioids, using social media responsibly, and so on. (She earlier attempted to focus only on cyber bullying, for which she was also mocked, given that she is married to the world’s most famous and powerful cyber bully.)

But she was close to being on to something.

Once you get past all the detailed negatives about Trump and other officials and supposed leaders in America unashamedly acting out, it comes down to one thing: a lot of responsible adults in positions of authority and influence are just being way, way too mean.

BE NICE. Does that sound ridiculous and puerile? “Be nice” seems the kind of message you might hear from your mother. Do you know why? Because Moms know that in your life, two things will happen. People in various positions relative to you will be mean to you, and you won’t always be in a position to say or do anything about it. And you will be in a position to be mean to others, and the same applies. It is a Mom-like cliché-plus to say “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything.” Moms want our lives to be better, maybe even best, and this can help. Whether you are in kindergarten or the White House, “Be Nice” is supremely wise advice.

Happy Mother’s Day to Moms and children of Moms everywhere.

Books for Passover and Easter

Passover

If you are celebrating Passover or just interested in it, you are familiar with the Haggadah—the book used as a roadmap for the seder meal and rituals that take place on the first couple of evenings of Passover.

There are widely adopted traditions for the seder that include the retelling of the Exodus story and the eating of symbolic foods. But the exact content and form of the seder have long been flexible, and this variety is reflected in different Haggadot. There are hundreds of versions.

For the Passover observant and the P-curious, I recommend a deeper dive than the typical Haggadah—a set of books from Jewish Lights entitled My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries – Volume 1 and Volume 2.

From the editors:

In two volumes, this empowering resource for the spiritual revival of our times enables us to find deeper meaning in one of Judaism’s most beloved traditions, the Passover Seder. Rich Haggadah commentary adds layer upon layer of new insight to the age-old celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom—and makes its power accessible to all.

This diverse and exciting Passover resource features the traditional Haggadah Hebrew text with a new translation designed to let you know exactly what the Haggadah says. Introductory essays help you understand the historical roots of Passover, the development of the Haggadah, and how to make sense out of texts and customs that evolved from ancient times.

Framed with beautifully designed Talmud-style pages, My People’s Passover Haggadah features commentaries by scholars from all denominations of Judaism. You are treated to insights by experts in such fields as the Haggadah’s history; its biblical roots; its confrontation with modernity; and its relationship to rabbinic midrash and Jewish law, feminism, Chasidism, theology, and kabbalah.

No other resource provides such a wide-ranging exploration of the Haggadah, a reservoir of inspiration and information for creating meaningful Seders every year.

These are a bit bulky for the seder table itself. But they are the sort of books you would read if you wanted to understand why people are sitting at the seder table in the first place and why the traditions are so broad and sometimes so misunderstood. If Passover is just going through the motions, any seder and any Haggadah will do. If Passover is one piece of a much bigger picture to be investigated, these enlightening commentaries are what you need.

Easter

Close to each other. Very close. Passover begins tonight on Friday March 30. Easter is this Sunday April 1.

The calendar isn’t all that’s close. The Jewish story and the Christian story, in general and in the context of these particular holidays, are essentially and inextricably linked. The nature of those stories and those connections is the source of faith, enlightenment, misunderstanding, mistrust, even hatred and violence. Among Jews and Christians.

Any big moment on the Jewish and Christian calendars (and these holidays qualify) is an opportunity not just for ritual celebration but for study. How well do we—Jews, Christians, others—understand the texts and traditions outside the comfortable conventions of our belief and practice? Not just understanding that will confirm our faiths, allowing us to nod our heads and pat ourselves on our collective backs, but new and even startling understanding that might shake us and even make us uncomfortable. Everything we know about Judaism or Christianity, about the Bible, about history, may not be wrong, but maybe we could benefit from another open and learned perspective.

The second edition of the The Jewish Annotated New Testament was published last year; any and every Jew or Christian should read at least a little of it. So should everyone else who wants to know something about the foundations of this consequential moment in scripture, history and religion. Believers and nonbelievers may think they know what they’re dealing with. Many don’t.

The editors explain:

It is almost two millennia since the earliest texts incorporated into the New Testament were composed. For the most part, these centuries have seen a painful relationship between Jews and Christians. Although Jewish perceptions of Christians and Christian perceptions of Jews have improved markedly in recent decades, Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other’s texts and traditions. The landmark publication of this book is a witness to that improvement; ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories and the reasons why we came to separate…

The Jewish Annotated New Testament represents the first time a gathering of Jewish scholars wrote a complete commentary on the New Testament. It reached a wide Jewish and Christian audience, and in doing so it has begun to increase both Jewish literacy of the New Testament and Christian awareness of the New Testament’s Jewish context. It has become widely used in colleges, universities and seminaries, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and joint Jewish-Christian study groups. Many Christian clergy and religious educators from different Christian denominations and church settings have told us that they have integrated the insights of this book into their preaching and devotion. Because of this volume, we have been told numerous times, sermons have been corrected, anti-Jewish teaching and preaching have been avoided, and Christians in churches and classrooms and Bible studies have learned more about Jesus and his followers. Jewish readers have told us how the volume has encouraged them to read the New Testament for the first time, to begin to consider the complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and how better to understand both their Christian neighbors and their own Jewish history….

For Christian readers The Jewish Annotated New Testament offers a window into the first-century world of Judaism from which the New Testament springs. There are explanations of Jewish concepts such as food laws and rabbinic argumentation. It also provides a much-needed corrective to many centuries of Christian misunderstandings of the Jewish religion.

For Jewish readers, this volume provides the chance to encounter the New Testament–a text of vast importance in Western European and American culture–with no religious agenda and with guidance from Jewish experts in theology, history, and Jewish and Christian thought. It also explains Christian practices, such as the Eucharist.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition is an essential volume that places the New Testament writings in a context that will enlighten readers of any faith or none.

 

Past Passover Posts

Passover has crept up on me. This year it begins on the evening of Friday, March 30.

I usually write and publish at least one post a year for the holiday, and if the Moses muse visits, I still may. Just in case, though, here are links to some past Passover posts.

Moses on Krypton, Superman in Egypt

Passover and Freud

Four Freedoms Passover

A Heschel Haggadah

Matzo: Dealing with Eating the Bread of Affliction

American Freedom Seder 2017: Where There’s a Pharaoh There’s a Wilderness

Heschel for Passover

Refugees and the Bread of Affliction

Chinese New Year: Tao Te Ching Chapter 39

The root of the noble is in the common,
the high stands on what’s below.
Princes and kings call themselves
“orphans, widowers, beggars,”
to get themselves rooted in the dirt.
A multiplicity of riches
is poverty.
Jade is praised as precious,
but its strength is being stone.
Ursula Le Guin, Tao Te Ching 39

Playing one’s part
in accordance with the universe
is true humility
So whether you’re a gem in the royal court
or a stone on the common path
If you accept your part with humility
the glory of the universe will be yours
Sam Hamill, Tao Te Ching 39

Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor
Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks
Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching 39

It is the Chinese New Year. Here is something randomly selected from the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching—the seminal text of Taoism, one that has served as the first step for many on the path to Asian wisdom.

The selection is Chapter 39 of the 81 chapters. Following are just a few of the countless translations, interpretations and commentaries.

Chapter 39 may be a bit more obscure and less straightforward than some others. The closing theme is humility, particularly the humility of sages and leaders.


Ursula K. Le Guin, Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

39
Integrity

Those who of old got to be whole:

Heaven through its wholeness is pure;
earth through its wholeness is steady;
spirit through its wholeness is potent;
the valley through its wholeness flows with rivers;
the ten thousand things through their wholeness live;
rulers through their wholeness have authority.
Their wholeness makes them what they are.

Without what makes it pure, heaven would disintegrate;
without what steadies it, earth would crack apart;
without what makes it potent, spirit would fail;
without what fills it, the valley would run dry;
without what quickens them, the ten thousand things would die;
without what authorizes them, rulers would fall.

The root of the noble is in the common,
the high stands on what’s below.
Princes and kings call themselves
“orphans, widowers, beggars,”
to get themselves rooted in the dirt.

A multiplicity of riches
is poverty.
Jade is praised as precious,
but its strength is being stone.


Red Pine, Lao-tzu’s Taoteching

39

Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
for the noble is based on the humble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks


William Scott Wilson, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation

39

Of those who obtained
the One along the way in ancient times:
Heaven obtained the One, and became transparent;
Earth obtained the One, and became pacified;
The spirits obtained the One, and
were imbued with the essential mystery of things;
The valleys obtained the One, and were filled to the brim;
The Ten Thousand Things obtained the One,
and sprouted with life;
Lords and kings obtained the One,
and divined how to make the world correct.
It was the One that guided them along.

If Heaven were not transparent,
I’m afraid it would soon be rent like cloth.
If Earth were not pacified,
I’m afraid it would soon begin to shake.
If the spirits were not imbued with
the essential mystery of things,
I’m afraid they would soon not bother to exert themselves.
If the valleys were not filled to the brim,
I’m afraid they would soon be dried up.
If the Ten Thousand Things did not sprout with life,
I’m afraid they would soon become parched and wither.
If lords and kings were not respected and on high,
I’m afraid they would soon stumble and fall.
Thus, that which is of little value creates
the foundation for that which is treasured,
And that which is low creates
a bedrock for that which is high.
Therefore, lords and kings call
themselves orphans, widowers, and menials.
Is this not making what is of little value the foundation?
Is this not so?
Thus, though you may often be awarded words of praise,
you will have no honor.
Do not wish to jangle like jewels;
Rather, resonate like rocks and stones.


Jonathan Star, Tao Te Ching: The New Translation

Verse 39

From ancient times till now
the One has been the source of all attainments
By realizing the One
Heaven becomes clear, Earth becomes still
spirits gain power and hearts fill up with joy
By realizing the One
kings and lords become instruments of peace
and all creatures live joyfully upon this earth
Without the One
Heaven has no clarity and would crack
Earth has no peace and would crumble
spirits have no power and would lose their charm
Without the One
hearts would dry up, empires would fall,
all things would go lifelessly upon this earth

Long ago kings and lords called themselves
“orphaned,” “lonely,” and “unworthy”
What honor can there be without humility?
What heights can be reached without being low?
The pieces of a chariot are useless
unless they work in accordance with the whole
A man’s life brings nothing
unless he lives in accordance with the whole universe
Playing one’s part
in accordance with the universe
is true humility
So whether you’re a gem in the royal court
or a stone on the common path
If you accept your part with humility
the glory of the universe will be yours


Sam Hamill, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation

39

Since ancient days, these attained oneness:
heaven attained unity and grew clear;
earth attained unity and grew tranquil;
souls attained unity and grew powerful;
valleys attained unity and produced abundance;
all beings became one and gave life;
rulers attained oneness and rule grew virtuous.
If heaven were not clear,
it would crumble;
earth without tranquility
would shatter.
Souls without power
would soon dissipate.
Valleys without abundance
are quickly exhausted.
Rulers without esteem
can be toppled.
Thus the noble is rooted in the humble,
the high founded upon the low.
Rulers call themselves orphans, widowers, destitute.
Isn’t humility at the root?
Hence they count many carriages
while disdaining their prestige.
Not wanting to tinkle and chime like jade,
they clatter, falling like stones.


Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained

39

Those that attained oneness since ancient times:
The sky attained oneness and thus clarity
The earth attained oneness and thus tranquility
The gods attained oneness and thus divinity
The valley attained oneness and thus abundance
The myriad things attained oneness and thus life
The rulers attained oneness and became the standard for the world
These all emerged from oneness

The sky, lacking clarity, would break apart
The earth, lacking tranquility, would erupt
The gods, lacking divinity, would vanish
The valley, lacking abundance, would wither
Myriad things, lacking life, would be extinct
The rulers, lacking standard, would be toppled

Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor

Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks

St. Rafqa’s Knit Haiku

For my beautiful and beloved knitter

St. Rafqa’s Knit Haiku

Who needs the arrows
of Valentine when we knit
with Rafqa’s needles

Note: I went looking for the Catholic patron saint of knitters—there’s usually an official or unofficial saint for everything—only to discover that there is no consensus about knitting. Suggestions include Saints Fiachra/Fiacre, Rafqa/Rebecca, Dymphna, Lucy, Ursula, Sebastian or Blaise. The idea was to connect the arrows of St. Valentine to the needles of St. Whoever. The haiku idea comes from having found the Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible as a gift for a knitter. All in all, a pretty long explanation for a pretty obscure poem. Happy Valentine’s Day.