On Chanukah, just let the lights go out

There’s a popular Chanukah song recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Light One Candle.” Its chorus insists we “don’t let the light go out” — but I’ve been thinking that maybe we should.

Not that I want to leave all those Maccabee children stumbling in the dark on cold December nights, or leave them without an image of light and hope to plug into. But, sometimes, letting the light go out kindles an altogether different kind of luminance in which to examine the moments of our lives that we hold dear.

So my urging that we watch the light go out is a literal one — while we love to bask in the glow of our menorahs, what is really illuminating is watching the candles go out.

Watching them burn out, one by one, makes me think about how remarkable it is to kindle light.In a time when LED menorah decorations are plentiful and one can use an app to light the “candles” on their smartphone, please give me candles blue, yellow, red and white.  The fire of my imagination lights up as their wicks burn down.

One Chanukah — after our family menorah was lit, the blessings chanted, the songs sung, the gifts opened — everyone trudged upstairs to watch TV. I stayed downstairs alone and watched the menorah burn low. Though the communal and commercial push on Chanukah is toward shopping-mall candle lightings, house parties and group crafts for kids, I wanted to see if the holiday could also be quiet and contemplative.

I’m not talking “silent night” here — that’s that other holiday — but a real chance to take in the play of shadow and light and contemplate what Hanukkah means.

The Jewish life cycle, from bris or baby naming to funeral and shiva, leaves little time for singular reflection. Judaism calls for a group, a minyan, to experience much of what it offers. Even on Yom Kippur, we do not confess our sins alone, but together as community.

So I admit that sitting alone and watching the candles burn down seemed a little downbeat and weird at first.

But the traditional prayer “Hanerot Halalu” (“These Lights”) — which reminds us, as we look upon the candles, to thank and praise God “for the wondrous miracle of our deliverance” — helped me view this solo experience in a different, well, light. While watching the flames, I finally connected with the words of the prayer, realizing that after eight nights of parties and presents (as well as latkes, sufganiyot and black cherry soda), I felt miraculously delivered, like I was a Maccabee who emerged victorious from the combat zones of holiday shopping.

Casting a shadow on my reverie, however, was the “Hanukkah Meditation” in my Sim Shalom prayer book. It suggested that “in the last glimmer of spiraling flame,” I should be able to see the spark of “Maccabees, martyrs, men and women of valor.”

Try as I might, staring at the candles burning down, all I could make out were colorful driblets of wax.

I wondered: Was there some other message?

Flames reach out at us from most every part of Judaism. Looking into our menorahs, they can draw us into a light of memory, like a yahrzeit candle lit at the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Flames also light us up with celebration, such as illuminating the candles of Shabbat or setting bonfires on Lag b’Omer.

In the window of my dining room, another candle connection was burning up right before me. The shamash, the candle used to light all the others on the menorah, was burning out first, making me ask: Who had been my shamash? Taking bows in the candlelight were a basketball coach, a college lecturer, the rabbi where I grew up, a kid from Scouts and, to a well-earned round of applause, my parents. In turn, they had showed me how to move my feet, write, parse Torah commentary, cook and strive toward menschhood. 

In the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, the earliest foundation text of Kabbalah, there is a passage about a “flame in a burning coal.” Aryeh Kaplan, an Orthodox rabbi who was known for his knowledge of physics and Kabbalah, wrote that it can be used as a meditation. In his book “Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice,” various parts of the flame correspond to the Sephirot, or attributes through which Ein Sof — “the infinite” — is revealed.

In Kaplan’s meditation, the wick represents the physical world; the blue flame closest to the wick is “the counterpart of Malchut,”or Kingdom, which is our perceptions of God’s actions and attributes. Surrounding this is the bright yellow flame, which corresponds to the Sephirot of Kindness, Strength, Beauty, Victory, Splendor and Foundation.

The hottest part, the white flame, is the Sephira of Binah, or understanding, with the “light radiating from the candle,” corresponding to Chochmah, or wisdom.

“The only way in which the flame can rise is for all of these parts to come together,” Kaplan wrote.

And rise they did, growing brighter first, and then sputtering out, one by one, but leaving me with a glow.

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.

Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

Crossroads of Contemplation

If the responsibilities and exigencies of daily life allowed him to, Rabbi Rami Shapiro says he would simply disappear into his own world of silent contemplation. But given that he has a family and other responsibilities, he’s found the next best thing: Metivta, A Center for Contemplative Judaism.

Shapiro took over as rabbi at Metivta last summer, after the retirement of Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who founded Metivta in 1991. Shapiro is now at the helm of an organization that seems to be a perfect fit for his Jewish mission: deepening Jewish spirituality through study and silence.

“I think when you are really still — and that means physically still and more importantly mentally still, when your mind is not racing around spinning its drama — then you know God,” Shapiro said, sitting in the library-meeting space at Metivta’s West Los Angeles headquarters. “Suddenly, you are awake to the fact that you and I and creation are manifestations of God, and you need radical psychological stillness for that.”

That vision of spirituality is at the basis of Metivta, which runs classes in meditation, Torah study and spirituality and holds meditation and study retreats, as well as long-term programs for rabbis and cantors.

This Passover, the organization is calling upon its members to fast from sunrise to sunset on each Monday and Thursday during the Counting of the Omer, the seven-week period beginning March 29 that marks the 49 days from the Exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

“Fasting raises our consciousness,” said Merryl Weber, a longtime Metivta board member, “and that raised consciousness must be channeled somewhere positive. So we are asking that people not only fast, but pray and meditate as well. We are also suggesting that the money they do not use for food on those two days be donated to those efforts that support the feeding of the world’s hungry.”

This is the largest recent public initiative of an organization that finds itself at a crossroads following Omer-Man’s retirement last summer at age 67, following a heart attack and the increasingly debilitating symptoms of polio he had contracted in 1956. Now Metivta must carve out its own identity without the central personality that drove it for so many years.

Judith Gordon, Metivta’s executive director, says that while a few people who were attached to Omer-Man left, most of the 4,000 members have stayed.

“I think when people began to realize that Rami didn’t want to supplant or replace Jonathan, but wanted to take Jonathan’s vision and move it forward, they opened themselves up to him,” Gordon says. “Nobody who loves Metivta wants to see what Jonathan has given people here go away. They want to see it flourish.”

Omer-Man is now rabbi emeritus and Shapiro and Gordon consult with him often. He also led High Holy Day services last year and teaches a weekly class through videoconferencing.

But for the most part, Omer-Man has let go, leaving Metivta in the hands of Shapiro, who, at 50, says he is “much too tied into my own thing” to worry about filling Omer-Man’s shoes.

“Ultimately it doesn’t matter, I think, whether it’s Jonathan’s approach or Rami’s approach or the Metivta approach or some other approach. All approaches somehow have to be transcended,” Shapiro says. “Really, we should be facilitating people’s own experience of the divine, and not worrying too much about lineage or authenticity.”

Omer-Man says the time was right for transition, not just for him personally, but for the organization.

“I left with mission successful,” Omer-Man said. “The goal wasn’t just to create Metivta. The goal was to influence other people, and I think that has happened…. We previously occupied a unique niche, and now it’s wide open. So Metivta has to move on.”

Metivta was on the vanguard of the revival of Jewish spirituality. When it was founded 11 years ago, there were few other places offering the healing and spiritual services that Metivta offered. Today, aside from organizations and synagogues dedicated to spirituality, many synagogues have recrafted themselves with a more salient spiritual element.

“On the one hand, that is a challenge — we used to be the only game in town and now we’re not,” Shapiro says. “But on the other hand, it can be very liberating. It allows us to look at what everyone else has and say ‘Given the core of our history, where does Metivta fit now?'”

One answer to that question may lie in taking Metivta’s successful local programs and offering them nationally — a process that has already begun. In the coming year, Metivta, for the first time, will hold its popular retreats outside California, with venues in Missouri, Massachusetts, Florida and Hawaii.

Metivta’s classes in spiritual Torah study are now accessible through videoconferencing, and a redesigned Web site will include video streaming of the classes.

For the last three years, Metivta has run the Spirituality Institute, a retreat-based, two-year program in spiritual leadership that currently has 35 rabbis enrolled and will soon start tracts for educators, lay leaders and cantors.

But Metivta still holds its own locally, Shapiro says, since much of the last decade’s spiritual revival has been in the ecstatic mode, not silent contemplation. Metivta is still one of the only addresses for Jewish meditation.

“Judaism is loud. Everyone understands Shlomo Carlebach, but I don’t think people understand the opposite of Shlomo — total silence,” Shapiro says. “If you go to synagogue and have a moment of silence, that is what it is — after 30 seconds everyone gets antsy.”

Metivta therefore still has an important niche in “making the world safe for contemplatives,” Shapiro says. “Not necessarily the world, and not necessarily all contemplatives, but I want to make the Jewish world safe for Jewish contemplatives.”

The synagogue, he says, plays a vital role in Jewish life, but it is inherently ill-suited for contemplation because it is focused on prayer.

“The liturgy, as beautiful as it is, is intrinsically dualistic. You are chanting to someone, you are asking something from someone,” he explains. “When the Psalmist says that ‘silence is praise,’ is more than being quiet, it is recognizing through silence that God is not other, God is the whole thing.”

Shapiro himself practices several kinds of meditation, all based in kabbalistic and Chasidic tradition. He chants a Hebrew phrase for up to a half-hour or focuses on the Divine name to settle into a total mental silence. Throughout the day, even while doing other activities, he has a phrase playing in the background of his head as a “spiritual Muzak,” he says.

The latter is “a way of creating a sense of spaciousness where you function so you have an ego but you aren’t that ego,” he says. “When you come back to the normal world, you come back with a sense of spaciousness and that allows you to be much more graceful and much more compassionate and just and much more powerful without being assertive.”

Shapiro’s personal need for silence drove his decision to leave Temple Beth Or, the Reconstructionist congregation he founded 20 years ago in Miami, Fla. The congregation, which he acknowledges was extremely centered on his personality, was based on his book, “Minyan: Ten Principles for Life With Integrity,” and he wrote and translated much of the liturgy as well.

Shapiro, who grew up in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, went to Reform seminary, studied Reconstructionism and was affiliated with Chabad in college, remains a prolific writer of essays, poems and free-form translations of Jewish texts. His weekly Torah portion e-mail has garnered another 200 subscribers for Metivta, and his classes and retreats, so far, have been well-received.

He has undertaken rewriting much of Metivta’s printed material, from brochures to mission statements, and in the process hopes to clarify Metivta’s vision.

“If there’s one thing I can do here, it’s to help people better define what they are about. I insist on clarity. We should know what Metivta’s mission is and vision is, and we should know in a sentence or two who we are, and I don’t think there is coherent statement of who we are at the moment,” Shapiro says.

Omer-Man, meanwhile, who says he is feeling stronger and is “delightfully busy” in his retirement, stays quietly vigilant from his perch in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

“Watching Metivta is like watching a kid when he or she gets married. They are starting their own life, and you don’t want to become an intrusive in-law,” Omer-Man says. “They are creating their own new life, and I wish them well.”

If you would like to participate in this fast effort you
can call Metivta at (310) 477-5370 or send e-mail to metivta@metivta.org .